May 26, 2012

Mary Worth and the Origin of Bloody Mary

Bloody Mary - possibly a witch named Mary Worth
Many people in the US have played ”Bloody Mary”, a popular children’s game and a test of a courage in slumber parties around the country. The game involves locking yourself into a dark bathroom with nothing but a candle, standing in front of the mirror and calling out ”Bloody Mary” three times. In another version, one must whisper ”I believe in Mary Worth.” This ritual serves to summon the vengeful witch, Mary Worth, who will then rip out the summoner’s eyes or claw their face.

It is uncertain where the legend originates from, but one possibility is a witch named Mary Worth who, according to local tradition, lived on the Old Wagon Road in Chicago during the Civil War. It is said that she used to kidnap runaway slaves and keep them chained in her barn, doing who knows what to them in her dark rituals.

The locals eventually became furious enough to take the law into their own hands and burn Worth at the stake. The legend says her body was buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Doubtful, since an infamous witch would have never been laid to rest in a Christian cemetery. Instead, she may have been buried on her farm, as one couple learned the hard way.

Many decades after Mary Worth’s execution, a farmer and his wife bought her former property and, fully aware of the place’s history, built their home on the very foundations of the barn in which Worth practiced her black arts. Apparently not one to be scared by old legends, the farmer set out to clear the land for an oat field.

During his work, he came across a square stone and moved it to the door of the house, figuring it to be a good stepping stone. This proved to be a mistake. Violent and often dangerous events immediately began to plague the couple, with the wife finding herself locked in the barn or the house on multiple occasions and plates crashing on the floor by themselves.

As the activity worsened, the farmer began to wonder if he had inadvertently disturbed Mary Worth’s real gravesite. He tried to return the stone to its original place in an attempt to end the disturbing phenomena, but he never could find the exact spot. After several years of torment, the house burned to the ground in 1986, supposedly due to arson.

There were later several failed attempts to build on the property. A developer managed to eventually raise a group of houses, but the one nearest to Mary Worth’s barn has since burned down once or even twice.

Image by Skyberry-13

May 23, 2012

Gloria Ramirez, the Toxic Lady

Gloria Ramirez, the Toxic Lady
The case of the Toxic Lady is a modern medical mystery that has found its way into several TV shows including The X-Files, Grey’s Anatomy and The New Detectives. Although there have been attempts to explain it, none of the theories put forward manage to satisfy all the experts that have spent time trying to solve the mystery.

At 8:15 in the evening on 19th February, 1994, a 31-year-old woman named Gloria Ramirez, who was suffering from advanced cervical cancer, was rushed to the emergency room at Riverside General Hospital in California. She was extremely disoriented, had an abnormal heartbeat and was taking shallow, rapid breaths.

Efforts to stabilize her began quickly, with the medical staff administering a variety of treatments, including sedatives and drugs to stimulate her heart. It soon became evident that Ramirez wasn’t responding to treatment, so the staff tried to defibrillate her heart. At this point many of the people present started to notice a strange oily sheen covering her skin and a garlic-like smell coming from her mouth.

When a nurse named Susan Kane drew a blood sample from Ramirez’s arm, she noticed an ammonia-like odor coming from the syringe. She handed it to the respiratory therapist, Maureen Welch, who noticed the same smell. The syringe was then passed to Dr. Julie Gorchynski, and she saw odd, manila-colored particles floating around in the blood.

That’s when everything began to dissolve into chaos. Kane turned towards the door of the ER and collapsed, unconscious. Next Gorchynski began to feel nauseous. She sat down at the nurse’s desk, complaining light-headedness – and then passed out and started to convulse. As the two women were rushed out of the room for treatment, Welch was the third to succumb to unconsciousness.

Several staff members were now feeling ill, and an emergency was declared. The ER was evacuated into the parking lot, while a skeleton crew stayed behind to try and save Ramirez’s life. All their efforts failed. At 8:50, she was pronounced dead.

In total, 23 of the 37 staff members experienced symptoms, and five were hospitalized. Gorchynski was affected the worst, and she had to stay in intensive care for two weeks.

The Riverside County hazardous materials team was the first to arrive on the scene and begin the investigation. They searched the ER thoroughly, testing for every dangerous substance they had the capability for. They found nothing. There was no sign of any toxin of any kind.

An autopsy, performed in a sealed room by doctors in airtight suits, revealed that Gloria Ramirez had died of kidney failure due to her late stage cancer. However, no toxins were found in her body. Nothing at all that could explain the mass faintings and the very real physical ailments of the hospitalized staff members.

Baffled officials blamed the whole incident on mass hysteria, which is apparently political code for ”Hell if we know.” Many of the victims were understandably angered by this verdict, especially Gorchynski, who during her two-week hospitalization stopped breathing repeatedly, contracted hepatitis and pancreatitis, and developed necrosis of the bone marrow in her knees. She was crippled for months and needed several surgeries to recover. A rather impressive host of illnesses to have been caused by a mere delusion.

Scientists at the Forensic Science Center at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory came up with a more sensical theory. They found evidence of a chemical called dimethyl sulfone (DMSO2) in Ramirez’s blood. DMSO2 is a reaction product of dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), which is a solvent cancer patients sometimes use to relieve pain. The reaction could have been caused by the oxygen administered by the paramedics.

Even though neither chemical is dangerous, the scientists guessed that some unknown mechanism could have converted the DMSO2 into DMSO4, a powerful nerve gas that could have caused the symptoms suffred by the ER staff. The coroner’s office swallowed up the explanation despite criticism by many other chemists, who called the formation of DMSO4  a chemical impossibility. As of yet, the theory remains unconfirmed.

What happened that night in the Riverside General ER? Was it the release of poisonous gas by some unknown chemical reaction? If not, what could knock out almost two dozen people while leaving no trace of itself?

May 15, 2012

The Origin of Tarot Cards

A Tarot card depicting DeathAs all are probably well aware, Tarot cards are commonly used in divination and occultism. Tarot reading is thought to give the reader insight into the future and present possibilities of the person seeking advice. Some believe the cards are guided by a spiritual force, while others think they help the reader tap into their own subconciousness, or even the collective unconscious – a universal pool of images, ideas and concepts innate to all humans and theorized by Carl Jung.

However, Tarot cards were not always used for divination. When they first appeared in Europe in the 15th century, they were used purely as playing cards, with apparently no mystical connections. It wasn’t until the 18th century that occultists started widely using them and the divination systems began to develop.

The first proper Tarot cards were apparently created between 1430 and 1450 in northern Italy, although similar cards were used centuries earlier. They quickly spread throughout northern Italy and became a popular game for nobles.

Although widespread occult use of the Tarot didn’t begin until the 18th century, it was connected to divination as early as the 16th century. A book written in 1540 outlined a simple method of divination, in which Tarot cards were used to select an oracle, though they didn’t have any meaning in themselves.

Certain manuscripts in 1735 and 1750 described a simple divinatory system for Tarot cards, but their real initiation into the occult can be traced back to Antoine Court de Gébelin in 1781. He believed that their origin was in ancient Egypt, and that their symbolism contained within them the lost knowledge of Egyptian mysticism and magic, hidden in a simple game by Egyptian priests. De Gébelin also claimed that the Tarot was brought to Europe by the Romani people (Gypsies), who he believed to have been descendants of the ancient Egyptians.

When Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered, nothing in them supported de Gébelin’s theories. However, by then the belief in Tarot cards originating from ancient Egypt had become firmly entrenched in occult practices and endured to this day.

 In the 19th century, the famous occultist Eliphas Lévi connected the Tarot to the Kabbalah, the Jewish system of mysticism. This fueled a new belief that the cards were keys to the ancient mysteries of the Tree of Life – a belief preserved to this day in Hermetic Qabalah, a Western mystical tradition that includes elements from Jewish Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, pagan religions and Enochian angelic magic, to name a few.

The Tarot is comprised of archetypical symbolism that crosses the boundaries of culture and time. This is why it has been linked to almost every mystical system and religion known to man, and many groups have recognized it as universal body of knowledge, relevant to any path and belief.

May 10, 2012

Durendal: The Holy Sword of Roland

The alleged fragment of Durendal in Rocamadour, France
Durendal was a legendary sword wielded by Roland, a heroic knight serving under King Charlemagne in the 8th century. Nearly as majestic as the fabled Excalibur, its blade shone white and stainless, and within its golden hilt were concealed four sacred relics: a tooth from Saint Peter, the blood of Saint Basil, strands of hair from Saint Denis, and a piece of the robe worn by Saint Mary.

In The Song of Roland, Durendal is shown to be preternaturally sharp and indestructible. The poem describes how Roland cleaved an armored Saracen soldier in half head to groin, with only a single swing of the holy sword. The strike even cut into the spine of the soldier’s horse. Later, Roland attempted to break the sword by striking it against a rock, but no amount of effort would even scratch it. He only succeeded in breaking off pieces of the stone itself.

Durendal’s origin is somewhat mysterious. One version of its legend claims that it once belonged to the greatest warrior of Troy, Hector, and was given to Roland by the great enchanter Maugris. Other works say that the sword was forged by Wayland the Smith, the legendary master blacksmith of Norse mythology and creator of the magical sword Gram. It was then brought by an angel of the Lord to Charlemagne, who gave it to Roland.

Roland and Durendal went on to conquer numerous territories for Charlemagne, from the shores of Italy to the hills of Scotland. Their story came to an end when Roland suffered a defeat at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass at the border of France and Spain, after a fierce battle to delay a Muslim army 400,000 strong with only 20,000 men in order to cover Charlemagne’s retreat into France.

Heavily wounded from the battle and on the brink of death, Roland tried to destroy Durendal to prevent the holy sword from falling into the hands of the Muslims, creating La Brèche de Roland with his futile swings. Once he realized the blade could not be shattered by human strength, he hid it underneath his body, and died facing the direction of his enemies in Spain.

Local folklore of the Rocamadour town in France claims that Roland threw the sword instead of hiding it, and that a fragment of it still exists embedded into a cliff wall in the village (pictured). However, the local tourist office says it is a fake.

May 5, 2012

Pontianak - The Vampire of Malaysian Folklore

When a woman dies in childbirth or while pregnant, there is a chance an undead predator, a Pontianak, will be created, says an old Malaysian legend. According to the myth, the woman’s spirit may rise from the grave as a vampiric ghost to prey on the living by night, while it resides inside a banana tree during the day.

The Pontianak is especially dangerous to men. It takes the form of a beautiful, pale-skinned, long-haired woman dressed in white to lure its victim close. When the unwary male comes near the creature, it suddenly turns into an ugly, sharp-toothed hag, digs its razor-sharp fingernails into his stomach, and devours his intestines and blood. Those unfortunate individuals the Pontianak has a particular grudge against face an even more gruesome fate: the demon rips out their sexual organs with its nails.

The Pontianak is said to relish the blood of newborn babies. It may kill the pregnant mother and eat the fetus, or alternatively attack during childbirth.

Some believe the Pontianak seeks out its prey by sniffing clothes hung out to dry. That’s why some of the more superstitious Malays never leave any of their clothing outside overnight.

There are a few of signs that tell a Pontianak is in the area. In folklore, it usually makes its presence known through baby cries. If the cry is loud, then the danger is not immediate – the Pontianak is still far away. However, if the cry becomes faint, it means the Pontianak is very close. Likewise, a howling dog indicates a Pontianak is far, while a whimpering one warns of the bloodthirsty creature’s immediate proximity.

When the Pontianak draws near, its presence is accompanied by a sweet, floral fragrance that quickly turns into a putrid stench.

There is only one way to stop this violent creature. If an iron nail is driven into its neck, it turns back into the woman it used to be. However, if the nail is ever removed, the Pontianak reverts to its monstrous nature, free to continue preying on humans. Some legends also state that if one were to tie a red thread from the banana tree the Pontianak resides in to the foot of one’s bed, the Pontianak would then become bound to that person’s will.

A popular Malaysian legend tells of a husband and his pregnant wife who are on their way back from the man’s hometown when their car breaks down. As this is presumably before cell phones became common items, the husband decides to walk to the nearest gas station for help, while the wife stays behind in the car.

For a while, everything is normal and uneventful. Then a slow, gnawing dread begins to creep up the wife's spine – not unexpected, considering she is trapped on a deserted road in the middle of the night. But all of a sudden she feels very cold, and the scent of sickly sweet incense fills the air before gradually turning into a rotten stench.

The woman is suddenly scared out of her wits by a loud banging on the roof of the car. The banging becomes more and more aggressive, as if something was trying to coax her out of the car, and the woman is too terrified to move.

Then, a police car pulls over nearby and the officer begins shouting at her to get out of the car and walk to him, slowly and carefully, and to not look back under any circumstances. She manages to overcome her terror enough to do as he says. But the banging persists and, unable to help herself, she turns around to see what it is. That’s when she sees a bloodied Pontianak leering at her, banging her husband’s severed head against the roof of the car.