Many images can be conjured from the association of lamps and Arabic mythology, but the brass lamp shown here is a surprisingly contemporary example of such tales. It has supposedly been in Polish hands for the last one hundred and fifty years, having been recovered as part of the loot from the defeated Ottoman Army at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. It had been part of a haul taken from a commanding officer of a siege battalion - a squadron who were responsible for tunneling beneath the walls of the city and demolishing them with black powder.
What makes this lamp particularly interesting is that the officer in question was involved with the taking of the Burg bastion. This was one of the few fortifications succesfully breached by Ottoman troops and may well have led to the taking of the city had Habsburg relief forces not arrived in time. Reports from the Viennese garrison describe the horror of the explosions and the fighting, but also mention events far more sinister. Witness accounts state that the initial explosion that destroyed the Burg wall had “the devil’s face”. The rumours of faces in the smoke of the black powder detonation are corroborated from several different points on the wall, despite the best efforts to whitewash them by Habsburg historians; all tell of a humanoid face in the explosion, sometimes laughing, sometimes staring directly at the witness. The connection between these peculiar accounts and this lamp is made with the arabic inscription on the base;
The word roughly translates as ‘Shaytan’, which is both the Islamic name for the devil and a breed of jinni or genie which would not bow to the will of God and functions as a form of demon in Islam. Their powers are varied, but shape changing is a common feature and all were dedicated to performing evil and chaotic deeds.
Whatever the lamp contained, the fractured glass bulb is empty now. But the few grains of black sand that seem to be left within are extremely telling.
I must apologise to all the loyal followers for the great delay there has been in these entires. Though it has generally gone unrecorded by the mainstream media, a small fire started in the Pitt-rivers rare records department and much of the Whelk collection has been damaged. Staff have done their best to repair what they could, but many of the plates are too damaged to be salvaged. An enormous loss to the academic world and the cause of my absence on this blog while we repair what we can.
Investigators into the fire have made little headway. Whilst it was more than likely an accident as a result of a damaged gas main, they have not ruled out human intervention. Inquiries are continuing. For now, I will attempt to continue the exhibition as best as possible with what material is left.
This woven quiver is of Australian Aboriginal design, and would generally have been used during hunting trips to carry short spears or javelins. However, the inside has been given a bottom, and it is now thought it functioned as a storage container of some description. It was retrieved as part of a recovery mission by British captain Arthur Phillip, who was attempting to discover the mysterious disappearance of the so called ‘Mantle Party’ in 1771 and what had happened to it’s leader, Charles Mantle.
Mantle was an assistant and friend of Joseph Banks, the world renowned botanist who travelled with Captain Cook on his first voyage in 1770 to Botany Bay. Mantle himself was functioning as a research assistant to Banks at the time as far as official capacity was concerned, but he was no mean naturalist himself, having already published several papers on the life cycles of insects and reptiles. He was also a keen collector of small animals, so whilst Banks was busy making the first major catalogue of Australia’s flora, Mantle was busy trying to retrieve and capture all the beetles and lizards he could find. During the crew’s encounters with local inhabitants, which were tense but mainly peacable, Mantle noticed a recurring motif in the artwork of the natives of the Gunyyal; that of a multi-coloured snake, often half submerged in water. When he attempted to gesture to this image, the men and women referred to it asNgalyod. This would make him one of the first recorders of the entity known as the Rainbow Serpent.
The Rainbow Serpent is as common a feature in Australian Aboriginal myth as the dream time. Named for it’s shimmering colour that resembles light being dispersed through water, it was thought to be a giant serpent that dwelt in the waterholes of the country and created much of it’s natural landscape. The sheer widespread nature of this particular legend is astounding, though it does not always go by the same name. Mantle became fascinated with the creature, studying his own reptilian specimens and reading old Dutch accounts of Australian exploration to see whether there could be some truth in the tale, an actual specimen of the snake for him to capture and bring home to England. He became obsessed with it, to the exclusion of all else. One day, we cannot be sure when, Mantle resolved to stay behind to hunt the creature down. What we do know is that, when Cook finally set sail, Mantle did not leave with him.
When Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet arrived in Australia in 1788, his inquiry into the whereabouts of Mantle was answered only with this quiver, converted by Mantle and the locals in to a sample holder to capture live snakes inside. The Aboriginals would not speak of him, only look sullen and sad at the mention of his name. It was not until some thirty years later, when one of the descendants of the tribe told an ancestral story he had learnt from his parents, do we get anything approaching an account of his actions. For there is a story amongst the Gunyyal of a white man from over the seas who wandered into the desert to peer into a waterhole, only to be swallowed by a living rainbow. Parents use it to warn their children not to be too curious; perhaps Mantle himself was on the receiving end of such a lesson.
It is fascinating to think that humans can find magic in even the most mundane of items. As simple an object as a stone with a naturally occurring hole through the centre can have spiritual significance attatched to it. These so called “seeing stones” have appeared in many different kinds of folklore; as a method for seeing the future, to communicate with the dead or to observe magical creatures normally far outside the realms of normal human senses. However, the device shown here is an example of what happens when human superstition and ingenuity collide.
This 15th century Korean scrying device was supposedly constructed under the reign of Sejong the Great, during one of the greatest scientific renaissances in Asian history. Korean scholars were well-known for their inventiveness, and have expanded the principle of the scrying stone further. The stone this piece was carved from was found with a naturally-occuring perfect circle at its heart. The outside has then been carved with such precision that it keeps the hole at its exact centre. Whatever strange principles govern the mechanics of scrying stones, they have been kept in exact mathematical balance.
The exact purpose of the scrying device is unknown. However, this particlar piece was apparently found in a naval collection, along with several other such devices comissioned for ships in the Korean navy. These devices may have been part of Sejong’s widespread military reforms, intended to give his navy an edge in terms of reconaissance. Those who have attempted to peer through the device have often reported strange images. Some have reported seeing the same location, but magnified a hundred times over as if looking through a telescope. Some say they see their location, but as if at night, despite using the device in the middle of the day. Many will not speak of what they saw. Their erratic results may explain why these scrying stones never saw widespread military use, but their workings are fascinating nonetheless.
This weathered, clay vase of Ethiopian design is said to contain waters drawn from the spring of the Blue Nile near Lake Tana. It was the prized possession of the Portuguese diplomat and explorer Pêro da Covilhã, who had obtained the waters when entering Ethiopia with the rest of the Portuguese embassy in 1507. However, the source of the Blue Nile is a sacred point for Ethiopia and the rest of Africa, due to it’s association with many sacred rivers. It’s connection with the Nile as one of it’s major springs already lends it some power, but it is also believed to have some connection with Biblical river of Gihon, one of the four that sprang from the garden of Eden. Given that it is referred to as circling the “Kingdom of Cush”, which scholars have interpreted as Kush, many connect it to the upper regions of the Nile in the region. But the cause may be traced further.
Most think that the Blue Nile springs from the lake itself, but Covilhã tells a different story. He was a great explorer, having already sailed around much of Africa, and wished to explore the country further. The guide he requested brought him to a cave just north of the lake. There, he was confronted by yet another tributary, concealed underground as a subterranean stream. Few know exactly what he saw, but some of the correspondences he sent to the Portuguese court that were interrupted by the Ethiopian government retain some of his own words;
"I peered into the waters and, I swear by Heaven, I saw night. A deep night, of the kind one can only find in the desert, with no buildings or fires to interrupt it. Stars filled the standing pools of water, points of light shining against the flowing water. But how could this be? For over our heads was solid stone and melting rocks. I remember our guide pointing to the waters and saying two words which even I could not understand, much less my party. ‘Lulungwa Mangakatsi’ he said. I have learned later that it means ‘the river that flows beneath’ or ‘the river of stars’. My favour drifts towards the latter, for had we not been so far beneath the earth, I would have sworn we were gazing at the sky."
Covilhã never returned to Portugal, as he was forbidden from leaving Ethiopia, though he did send a sealed vase filled with the waters of the Mangakatsi with those few of the embassy who did return. The words of his guide may refer to the Bantu mythology of South-East Africa, who believe there is a single river of stars that flows beneath the whole of Africa with its spring past the gates of the underworld. Whether the Blue Nile flows out of such a river is unknown, for the vase itself has remained sealed for three hundred years. Whether it contains stars or not is anyone’s guess.
These are the Paphos Figurines, a collection of figures found buried in Cyprus in 1755, dating back from the 11th century BC. Many experts have seen them purely as ceremonial pieces, comparing them with similar items found in ancient Phoenician and Mycenaean burials. However, there is also another train of thought stating that these statues may have been the creation of an ancient equivalent of the mythic sculptor, Pygmalion.
Pygmalion, according to Greek myths and Roman texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis, was a Cypriot goldsmith turned sculptor. He found himself revolted by the women he saw around him, and thus set out to fashion the perfect woman from ivory. When he completed his sculpture, he was so overwhelmed by it’s beauty that he fell in love with the statue. When he made offerings to Venus, the goddess answered his prayers and brought the statue to life. They married and bore a son named Paphos, for whom a coastal city and these figures are named.
A fascinating tale, but what do these stories have to do with the figures presented here? Well, on further examination of these figures, the discovery was made that the inside of their heads were hollowed-out and inscribed with ancient Phoenician markings, some of which refer to Pumay, the god who Pygmalion’s name is based on. They also contain references to life and movement. This could bear some link to the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the golem, a statue brought to life by inscriptions placed in it’s head. Perhaps they were drawing on a more Classical tradition? Some of the figurines also contained alchemical ingredients, especially mercury, providing a link to another well-known story of automata, that of Daedalus and his ability to give voices to statues by the use of quicksilver. Based on such evidence, mythographers believe these figurines are the earliest known attempts to create golems by alchemic means.
One more thing remains yet undiscovered. The Paphos figurines are small, and may have only been intended as homunculus size creatures, small constructions useful for aiding alchemists. But rumours abound of a statue fifteen feet tall located somewhere beneath the earth of Cyprus. To this day, several resting places have been proposed but no statue has been found. Of course, as far as we know, we may have found it’s resting place already, but the sculpture simply walked away.
No-one really knows the origin of this bizarre mask. The design is tribal in origin, that seems apparent, but it’s age is almost entirely indeterminable. What is known is that it has taken quite the journey, first starting on a trade caravan on the Silk Road through the Ottoman Empire, then ending up in a palatial abbey outside the Sicilian city of Messina and finally being auctioned off in 1825 by one John Allan, an extremely wealthy businessmen from Richmond, Virginia. What may help is tracking the travels of this particular artefact backwards, given that one of the key figures that this piece encountered was a young Edgar Allan Poe.
How much direct contact Poe had with the mask is open to interpretation. We know that Poe was adopted by Allan at an early age, and that the mask was in Allan’s possession by 1820, when Poe returned from his brief stay in England. Poe did not go to university until 1826, giving him much time to have had direct contact with the mask. Why is this important? Because a few literary scholars believe this mask provided some inspiration for one of Poe’s darkest works, “The Masque of the Red Death”. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it is set around an abbey in an unknown Italian city suffering from a mysterious plague called the Red Death. Whilst the poorer classes die outside, the aristocracy shut themselves up in the abbey under the stewardship of Prince Prospero. Whilst there, they throw a masquerade ball to distract themselves from the horrors of the outside world. That night, a particular visitor, garbed in a red mask and cloak, causes unease amongst the desk and will not answer to Prospero’s repeated jibes. On confronting him and ripping off his mask, he finds that the costume is empty beneath, and all within the abbey succumb to the plague in mere moments.
The extraordinary link has been made due to the masks history, as on the second part of it’s journey, the mask was located buried in an abbey in Messina. Messina is widely regarded as the entrance point for the Black Death to Europe, carried by ships arriving at the port in 1347. The abbey in question was not truly explored until two hundred years later, whereupon it was discovered it had functioned as a quarantine zone during the height of the late plague decades. But despite the abbey being entirely cut off from the outside world - even going so far as to grow it’s own food and shun all human contact - on the 3rd of June, 1355, all within succumbed to the plague in a single night. No-one can account for how it happened, but the story travelled to America with this item. For when grave-robbers were searching amongst the dead, this mask lay alone on the floor, nestled amongst the folds of a red cloak, surrounded by the bodies of the deceased. Perhaps Poe’s tale has a far darker meaning than even he imagined.
This Horn seems to be an excellent example of early Iron-Age metal-work at first glance. It could have been used as either an instrument or as a drinking vessel, though there is no trace of liquid on the inside. Many have claimed intially that it has early Germanic or Viking roots to it’s craftsmanship - the markings on the inside appear to be weathered Futhark runes. However, these are difficult claims to substantiate, given that the piece itself was not discovered until 1741 in a cave in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, affectionately referred to as ‘Mother Shipton’s Cave’.
Ursula Sotheil was a prophetess who lived in England from 1488 to 1561, becoming known as Mother Shipton when she married a local, Toby Shipton. She was meant to have been as prolific a soothsayer as Nostradamus - having made hundreds of verse predictions in her life time - yet she was treated as little more than a local witch, rumoured to be repulsive and hag-like in appearance. We have many prophecies that claim to be from her but they are all difficult to authenticate, as many have been the invention of later writers who publish with her name on the cover. However, it seems a fairly sure claim that this is one of her more authentic predictions;
"For storms will rage and oceans roar,
When Gabriel stands on sea and shore,
And as he blows his wondrous horn,
Old worlds die and new be born.”
Gabriel has often been represented as the angel who blows the trumpet which signals the coming of the Apocalypse. However, this statement is not included in the bible; a specific angel is not given this purpose. There is an Islamic angel named Israfel who is also supposed to blow the last trump, yet once again, the reference to a horn is made but not the angel. Only after Mother Shipton’s prediction did the role popularly fall to Gabriel.
The statement may have something to do with the horn shown above, which was located buried deep in the earth of the cave in which Mother Shipton was born. Rumours from the area at the time said she visited there frequently, often to acquire her visions into the future. She may have found the Horn herself; it was said to have been buried underneath several layers of stones piled up by a human hand, as if to protect what lay beneath. There is one last link to be made; an inscription can be barely made out in the runes that inscribe the inside. An extremely loose translation may read “Horn of Gjoll” in Proto-Norse. Gjoll was one of the rivers of the Norse Underworld, but it may also be a reference to the Gjallarhorn, the horn possessed by Heimdall the watchman god which would signal the coming of Ragnarok - the Viking equivalent of the Apocalypse. What sound the horn might make is unknown; the finders clearly heeded Mother Shipton’s fear of the object, and the instrument has never been used.
Shadow Puppetry is extremely popular in the islands of Indonesia, and no where more so than on the island of Java, where it is has been practiced for centuries. There it goes under the name of Wayang Kulit, and involves the setting up of flat leather puppets, such as the one portrayed here, in front of an oil lamp so that their shadows may be cast on the cotton screen in front. However, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Islam became the dominant faith of Java, the puppet shows were deemed illegal and were extremely difficult to put on. However, this did not deter the Portugese missionary, Sima de Francisco.
de Francisco had been sent to Java as part of the Roman Catholic missionary effort in Indonesia, around the year 1525. During his stay in Jakarta, he heard about the theatre and was greatly interested to see a show put on. However, due to the rising force of Islam, the puppetry itself had taken a decline, so the show Francisco saw was not entirely legal. Indeed, the puppets used were not recently crafted, but antiques that had been found by the volunteer dalang, or ‘puppet master’. These puppets, of which the one above is thought to belong to, had been around for many decades, maybe even hundreds of years. de Francisco would not be deterred, and demand that a show be put on for himself and his staff. The puppet master complied, and showed him a Buddhist tale, involving a journey through the various planes of Buddhist cosmology. However, something very bizarre happened when they reached the Narakas, the many hells where souls were purged of their bad karma before being sent back to the material world. He wrote this account of the moment in his journal;
"All of a sudden, shadows began to lengthen, and the lights around the screen dimmed further. I thought our host had interfered, yet he seemed caught in a trance of music and words as he recounted the strange hell into which we had descended. The shapes thrown on the curtain started to jerk and dance, seemingly without help from their controllers. And the hero, who had guided us so far on this strange journey, twisted and writhed like a thing on fire. It seemed to me his limbs had come loose from their joints and had taken a strange life all of their own. As the demons surrounding him taunted and tortured his body, the lamp light flickered, casting it’s dancing shape in pale oranges and bright reds. Not in any painting, nor any sculpture, not even in the image of our Lord and Saviour himself, have I ever seen a more complete and total picture of human suffering."
Sima de Francisco returned to Portugal that same year, where he spent the rest of his days leading a solitary, clerical life contemplating scripture and his own misdeeds. In 1527, the Portugese themselves were removed from Java by the Sultanate of Demak. These peculiar puppets were not moved to Europe until the Dutch colonialists found them and heard of their wondrous story. There is one more peculiar detail associated with this paticular figure, thought to be the protagonist de Francisco spoke of. The word kulit means ‘skin’, normally referring to the leather the puppets were shaped from. But inspection by the Dutch shows this puppet does have parts made from authentic human skin. Who would have engaged in search a practice is unknown, and it is the only example found of such work to date. Where the skin comes from, and what torments it’s possesser must have gone through, remains a mystery.