The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Demons

The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between 1308-1320 AD.  As one of the most influential books ever composed, this religious allegory about the importance of salvation marks the start of Italian literature.

The story begins at Easter in the year 1300.  There are three parts (cantiche) aligning with the Trinity’s Father Son, and Holy Ghost.  They are entitled Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and  Heaven (Paradiso).  Each section has 33 Songs (cantos), except for the first part which has 34.  These add up to a total of 100 Songs to represent Dante’s “perfect” number 10 (10 x 10 = 100).

Written in the first person, Dante imagines his soul’s spiritual quest as it ventures from darkness into light.

Dali 1 (Salvador Dali)

“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself

In dark woods, the right road lost . . .”

The narrator wakes up one day to find himself in the dark forest of sin.  The spirit of Virgil appears and promises to lead him on the path of salvation through Hell, Purgatory, and into  Heaven.  Virgil eventually hands him over to Beatrice (the ideal woman).

Dante’s world is full of monsters and demons.  Each soul is punished according to its former deeds, which range from small self-indulgent transgressions such as a lack of willpower. to violent and malicious crimes.  Hell is portrayed as an underground funnel made up of circles.  At the bottom sits Satan who perpetually gnaws on history’s three worst traitors: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.  The punishments inflicted on the travelers are vivid and relentless – the stuff of eternal nightmares.  Yet those sinners who have confessed to their crimes before death are eventually permitted to leave Hell and head through Purgatory in search of Heaven.

Purgatory is a mountain made up of 7 rings, with the Garden of Eden at the top.  Once cleansed of their sins, the wandering souls rise up toward Heaven where God appears as a vision of light.

Dante’s morality poem is a tale of justice and retribution.  The wrong-doers are punished for their past crimes with the worst torments imaginable.  They have to suffer alone and abandoned, devoid of help or hope.

Cerberus_Gluttony[1]

So why is this classic called The Divine Comedy when it is a full-blown scary vision of Hell?  Because Dante’s epic has a happy ending and therefore is not considered a tragedy in the standard literary tradition.

Sleep well!

Abracadabra!

  • Abracadabra is the famous magical word that is still used today by stage conjurers.
  • It may have derived from an ancient Jewish cure for sickness that went:

Ab Abr Abra Abrak Abraka

Abrakal Abrakala Abrakal

Abraka Abrak Abra Abr Ab

  • Another theory is that it came from the followers of Basilides who worshipped a god called Abraxas.   He ruled the 365 days of the year. The 7 letters of his name may represent the 7 astrological planets that control fate.
  • The first recorded use of Abracadabra was made by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, who was the doctor of the Roman Emperors Caracalla, Geta, and Severus.  In 208 AD he accompanied Emperor Severus on his expedition to Britain.
  • The word was used as a healing charm set out like this:

Abracadabra

  • These letters were written on paper and tied around the patient’s neck with a length of flax.  After 9 days the charm was thrown backwards over the shoulder into an east-moving stream.  As the words shrank away, so did the fever.
  • According to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) people thought the Black Death was caused by an evil spirit taking possession of the body.  A similar Abracadabra spell was used to ward of the sickness using the power of magic.
  • Many favorite charms were written in pyramid form.  These amulets would be worn on the body, kept under the bed, or placed in a box and hidden somewhere about the home.

Sources:

Man, Myth and Magic.  “Abracadabra” (London: Purnell, 1970)

Wikipedia. “Abracadabra,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abracadabra

The Witch-finder General

Matthew Hopkins (c. 1620-1647) was the self-appointed Witch-finder General of the English Civil War era.  He worked mainly in the East Anglia region.

Hopkins Hopkins, the son of a Puritan clergyman from Suffolk, operated with a man called John Stearne.  Several women “prickers” also travelled around the countryside with them, going from town to town to identify those in league with Satan.  Although the Witch-finders were only active for three years (1644-1647) they were responsible for accusing approximately 300 women – more witches than England had executed in the previous hundred years!

Hopkins found employment as a direct result of the second Lancashire Witch Trials of 1634, whereby King Charles personally investigated the case and finally pardoned all of the prisoners.   Thereafter, he demanded  a confession, or material proof of a crime, before sentencing a suspect to death.

As Hopkins was paid for the witches he uncovered, he developed his own methods to comply with the royal demand.  Torture was illegal – but the Witch-finder General used sleep deprivation, ducking (or swimming) witches, bleeding, and the test of pricking the Devil’s Mark.  Rumor claims that Hopkins invented a bodkin with a retractable blade.  This looked like it was piercing the skin but in fact it made no impact.  Because the prisoners felt no pain, and did not bleed, they were deemed to be sorcerers.

In 1647 Hopkins published a pamphlet called The Discovery of Witches, but a campaign against his cruel methods had already been triggered by John Gaule, a vicar in Huntingdonshire.  As public opinion changed, the Witch-finder’s credibility dwindled and his team was forced into retirement.  He died in 1647, probably from tuberculosis.

According to local legend, Matthew Hopkins’ ghost haunts Mistley Pond — a spot in Suffolk close to where he was buried.  It is said that he still roams the land in search of witches!

Sources

BBC Legacies. “Witch-finder Witch?” at http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/myths_legends/england/essex/article_4.shtml

Controverscial. “Matthew Hopkins,” at http://www.controverscial.com/Matthew%20Hopkins.htm

Encyclopedia Britannica. “Matthew Hopkins,” at http://www.britannica.com/biography/Matthew-Hopkins

Wikipedia. “Matthew Hopkins,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Hopkins

 

 

What’s Your Poison? Oleander!

Did you know:

  • Nerium Oleander is a highly-toxic shrub that grows between 6-20 feet tall.
  • It is drought-tolerant and can survive in poor soil.
  • Oleander thrives naturally around dry stream beds but it is often reared in ornamental gardens because it is a showy and fragrant bush.
  • Mature stems have a gray bark, while the dark green leaves are thick and leathery.
  • The downy seeds grow in long narrow capsules.
  • Oleander flowers come in a wide variety of shades including white, purple, yellow, apricot, pink, and red.  They generally have a sweet scent.
  • All parts of the plant are toxic, even when dried out.  It should not be used for firewood or cooking.
  • The sap causes irritations of the eyes and skin.
  • Rodents and birds are not affected by the toxins but it is highly dangerous to humans.  There are, however, few reported deaths from Oleander poisoning, even when it is intentionally ingested in suicide attempts.
  • Effects of the poison last 1-3 days if treated in a hospital.
  • Ingestion of the toxin affects the stomach, heart, and central nervous system causing blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, excess salivation, pain, diarrhea, and irregular heartbeats.  The skin becomes pale and cold.  There can be drowsiness, tremors, seizures, coma, and eventual death.
  • Because Oleander was the first plant to bloom in Hiroshima after the atomic bombing of 1945, it  was adopted as the city’s official flower.

Sources:

Home Guides. “How Toxic Is Oleander To Humans?” at http://homeguides.sfgate.com/toxic-oleander-humans-82304.html

Medline Plus.  “Oleander Poisoning,” at https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002884.htm

Wikipedia. “Nerium” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N

What’s Your Poison? Opium!

poppy

Did you know:

  • Papaver somnifera – the Opium Poppy – has been cultivated in Eurasia for over 6,000 years.
  • There is some evidence that poppies were important in pre-historic religious rites.
  • The word opium comes from the Greek word opos, meaning juice.  It was associated with the love goddess Aphrodite, and the god of sleep, Hypnos.
  • The flowers can be red, white, orange, yellow, and deep pink.
  • Not all poppies contain the narcotic opium, but they are all poisonous.  For this reason they were traditionally mixed with hemlock for a quick and painless death.
  • For many years opium was used as a murder weapon by unscrupulous members of the medical profession.
  • Poisoning occurs from eating unripe poppy seed capsules, or from overdose after it has been processed into opium, codeine, heroine, and morphine.
  • Poppies were grown for a wide range of medicinal benefits: sedatives, pain reduction, and mood elevation.  The Greeks and Romans used them to treat diarrhea, dysentery, asthma, stomach complaints, and poor eyesight.
  • Overdose triggers erratic behavior, loss of appetite, stupor, coma, and may result in death from respiratory failure.
  • Poppies are also toxic for dogs and cats.
  • John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields inspired the adoption of the poppy as the national Remembrance Day symbol to honor British war veterans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

Sources:

Poison Diaries. “Opium Poppy: A poisonous plant,” at http://thepoisondiaries.tumblr.com/post/18186895021/opium-poppy-a-poisonous-plant

Poison Plant Patch. “Poppy,” at http://www.novascotia.ca/museum/poison/?section=species&id=102

Right Diagnosis From Healthgrades. “Common Poppy Poisoning,” at http://www.rightdiagnosis.com/c/common_poppy_poisoning/intro.htm

Wikipedia. “Opium” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium

 

The Enigmatic Pentagram

In the beginning, the pentagram (pentagon) was a holy symbol for The Divine.  How did it come to represent evil?  And why is it now the most popular image of modern Wiccans and witchcraft?

pentagon

The pentagram is a five-pointed star within a circle.  Originally, the single peak was on top and pointed towards God.  It was first recorded around 3500 BC.  The Ancient Mesopotamians used it represent their power extending into the four corners of the world.

The Hebrews chose the pentagram to signify Truth, and Pythagoras’ followers considered it to be the emblem of Perfection.  Celtic Druids also associated it with the Godhead, because five was their sacred number.

The Early Christians connected the pentagram with the Five Wounds of Christ, but eventually decided to use the symbol of the Cross as their banner instead.  Yet the religious connection to the “Endless Knot” of the star endured, and it soon became a personal talisman to ward off demons.  In Medieval times it was used as an amulet over windows and doors to stop evil from entering the home.

According to Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain adopted the pentagram for the coat-of-arms on his shield, claiming the five points represented Generosity, Courtesy, Chastity, Chivalry, and Piety.

It was also used by the Knights Templar, who believed the pentagram contained certain mystical powers.  Later, when they were persecuted by King Louis IX’s Inquisition, this symbol became associated with heresy.

Before long, the five-pointed star was linked with the Horned God, Pan.  It was renamed the “Witch’s Foot” and entered into the mythology of witches and  pagans.  No longer did the pentagram represent the Divine.  For many years it was the public symbol of Satan and his devils.

In private, however, the power of the pentagram lived on. Western Occultists and Freemasons believed that mankind was a smaller part of a greater universe and they decided that this symbol – the “Star of the Microcosm” – was the best representation of human insignificance.

During the Nineteenth Century certain Metaphysical Societies – particularly those based on the ancient Holy Kabbalah – established the pentagram as part of the Tarot Card system of divination.  They renamed the Suit of Coins as the Suit of Pentacles.

Twentieth Century Satanists adopted inverted pentagrams (and inverted crucifixes) as symbols of evil – an unfortunate association that has stuck in public consciousness.

Meanwhile, the upright pentagram has been reclaimed by Wiccans and Witches.  They see it as a representation of the five elements – Earth, Fire, Wind, Air, and Spirit.   It remains the most recognized symbol of their beliefs, and has once again become associated with the Divine!

Sources:

Cyber Witchcraft. “Witchcraft Symbols,” at http://www.cyberwitchcraft.com/witchcraft-symbols.html

Pagan’s Path. “History of the Pentagram”: at http://www.paganspath.com/magik/pentacle1.htm

Wikipedia. “Pentagram,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentagram

What’s Your Poison? Henbane!

Did you know:

Henbane

  • Hyoscyamus niger is also called Henbane, Black Henbane, Stinking Nightshade, and Devil’s Eye.
  • The name Hen likely derives from the Old English word for death, as this plant was known as hen bell (meaning death bell) as early as 1265.
  • Its veined yellow flowers grow wild in chalky soil, by roadsides, on waste ground, and near old buildings.  It likes sandy ground too, and flourishes by the sea.
  • Although part of the Mandrake and Belladonna family, Henbane is also associated with the potato, tomato, and tobacco plants.
  • All parts of the Henbane plant are poisonous – especially the leaves.  Neither boiling or drying destroys its toxicity.
  • Henbane is often associated with witch-brews and magic potions because it causes hallucinations and the sensation of flight.  Merely sniffing its offensive smell can make people giddy.  Other symptoms include restlessness, flushed skin, and manic behavior.
  • The Oracle of Delphi supposedly inhaled smoke from smoldering Henbane to induce mystical experiences.
  • In ancient times this herb was used as a pain medication, toothache cure, and sleep aid.  During the Nineteenth Century it was prescribed for epilepsy and other convulsive ailments.
  • Before the widespread use of hops, Henbane was used to flavor beer.
  • Perhaps because of its association with witchcraft, in German folklore Henbane was believed to attract rain, blight cattle, and destroy crops.
  • And Shakespeare may have used this plant as the “cursed hebenon in a vial” that killed Hamlet’s father.

Sources

Botanical.com.  “Henbane,” at https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/h/henban23.html

Rowan.  “Henbane – the insane seed that breedeth madness,” at http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/henbane.htm

Wikipedia.  “Hyoscyamus niger” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyoscyamus_niger