Reviews, Essays and Exhibitions …
I write reviews for art, film, feminism and music publications, myths and legends essays – and other stuff, I’m sure …
(On Sonita, women singing in Iran, and forced/child marriage …)
I write a monthly column as ‘Alice in Wanderlust’ for Voyage D’etudes, exploring hidden myths and legends of cities around the world, and injecting some humour into history. The website’s being redesigned so here’s some:
ALICE IN WANDERLUST – VOYAGES D’OR: THE LAST ALCHEMIST IN PARIS
* 48.8567° N, 2.3508° E *
Something that’s often forgotten about Paris amidst its mist filled with flowers and pheromones, as you wander the dawn grey streets, heavy with thick black chocolate straight off the ship, hazy with absinthe (cheap wine).
What is easy to forget is this; Paris doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, it never has and it never will. It is a place to be free and it defends that freedom with total sincerity, or seeming insincerity, whichever measure is just. You can push Paris so far, and then you get a slap for being a “beetch”. ‘You’ can be a person, an idea, a religion, a sect, a government, if you push it too far, you don’t stand a chance against this city.
The freedom within its walls makes it a haven for magic and romance; it smuggles lovers, caters for courtships, its bridges ache with lovelocks and … its underground passages are paved with bones?
I didn’t know this the last time I went to Paris, otherwise I’d have obviously been straight down there. I, however, spent my time buying cheap green leather, stuffing my face in the Jewish restaurants off the Marais (you haveto go to Chez Marianne) and seeing how much information it is possible for the human brain to retain in one museum trip to the Louvre.
Very little after two beers it would seem.
But back to where I could have gone, the Catacombs of Paris. The Catacombs of Paris originate from the cemetery of ‘Saint Innocents’ which was an unfortunately situated mass graveyard plonked directly in the center of Paris.
Unsurprisingly this got too full after a while (mmmmm …) so all the hundreds of thousands bodies were exhumed and made into a charming bone passageway under Paris. If you wander in to the underground tunnels you find tessellated femurs slotted in to sockets, arched tibia and monolithic hillocks of skulls. A delightfully gothic subterranean passageway built to house the dead and please the eye, way before William Morris first said “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” they decided this mass grave should be both.
I mean, por quoi non?
Just across the river in the 3rd arrendissement, in the historic heart of the city is the Rue de Montmorcey. On this road the oldest stone house in the city still stands in gothic glory, the house of Paris’ most famous alchemist, Nicholas Flamel, who happened to have a penchant for wandering the Catacombs at night, as did many of Paris’ elite.
But let’s begin at the beginning; here comes the science, or (pseudo)science, whatever floats your boat:
Alchemy is the transmutation of base metals in to gold; it is also, and more importantly, the achievement of ultimate knowledge, complete oneness and the discovery of the elixir of life (the philosophers stone). It is believed this is the true Holy Grail, not some cup.
Alchemy has been studied by the greatest minds of our time; Plato, Isaac newton, Pope John XXII, the count of St Germaine and psychedelic cult phenomena Terrence McKenna has also dabbled in it. Kings and queens even had their own personal alchemists such as Queen Elizabeth I’s right hand man John Dee (Blur’s Damon Albarn wrote an opera about him ‘Dr Dee’, I didn’t see it, sounded cool though …)
So, Nicholas Flamel is, to us, a famous alchemist in 15th century Paris, but he didn’t start off that way. Up until his forties, Flamel was a bookseller, married with children with a pleasant, uneventful life. This was until he started reading about alchemy and the hermetic arts, he found out that it was supposedly possible to obtain perfect wisdom and eternal life. Flamel became infatuated with this spiritual ideal and had a prophetic dream of being given a book by an angel. Two months later, he was given this book by an old Jewish man fleeing Paris for Spain – Angels come in many guises.
The book was by Abraham the Jew, a wandering Magi of a group of 7 philosophers who belonged to no country and travelled all over the world, with no other aim than for the search of wisdom and their own personal development. Where human life could have the span of 1,000 years with the secret of the philosophers stone (– take note Laboratoirs Garnier, imagine what that could for your FACE) Flamel would one day become one of these men.
For now however, Flamel could not decipher the text or symbols in the book, so he went in search of someone who might be able to help.
Many Jews had fled Paris for Spain due to persecution, so Flamel headed on a pilgrimage, the famous ‘Camino’ where he found the Jewish “Maestro Canches” who helped Flamel decipher enough pages before the Maetsro’s death for Flamel to continue the study on his own on his return to Paris. Which he did.
And then, all of a sudden, the little bookseller Flamel, became rich. But having a true understanding of the philosopher’s stone, he was not greedy; he built houses for the poor, founded hospitals and endowed churches. Though Flamel knew how to make gold he reportedly only made it three times in his life, only to hinder the evils he saw around him.
Flamel’s “death” passed without much real event, his tombstone had already been made, as had sculptures of him in the churches he endowed, on the new house he had built on the Rue de Montmorency, eleven saints were carved on the front, and then a bust of himself.
His penchant for making these personal additions to sacred buildings did not go unnoticed and it didn’t take long for the rumors of Flamel’s alchemy to start spreading. It was said that the symbolic figures he’d had sculpted on to various monuments gave, for those who could decipher it, the formula of the philosophers’ stone.
Over the centuries flamel’s tomb was ransacked, his house left bare of clues, carvings stolen from churches and the catacombs. Victor Hugo even describes this in The Hunchback of Notre Damn…
“It was the house which Nicolas Flamel had built, where he had died about 1417, and which, constantly deserted since that time, had already begun to fall in ruins, so greatly had the hermetics and the alchemists of all countries wasted away the walls, It was supposed that Flamel had buried the philosopher’s stone in the cellar; and the alchemists, for the space of two centuries, never ceased to worry the soil until the house, so cruelly ransacked and turned over, ended by falling into dust beneath their feet.”
Now all that is left is the legend that when his tomb was opened, it was empty, and Flamel is to this day, one of these wandering Magi. (I imagine boarder control might make this slightly more difficult these days, but it would be nice if he still was.)
If you’re in Paris, still existing on the Rue de Montmorcey is the ‘Auberge de Flamel’ now a restaurant but previously the inn where Flamel and his wife would look after the poor, providing “the poor” said their prayers – an inscription on the walls of the restaurant still shows this. Well worth a visit (if not for the food then for the history).
Flamel has been revived throughout the centuries and most recently* as a small alchemical renaissance took place in the Parisenne Dadaist scene.
In fact, 1920’s Parisienne high society was the setting for the death of two beautiful socialites, focusing around a man named Fulcanelli, the last alchemist in Paris.
Fulcanelli’s name is not his own, it came from combining Vulcan with Helios, meaning ‘Sacred Fire’ (imagine the ego).
Fulcanelli had a female assistant, Margarette Louise Barbe, who was notorious among the elite occult sect in Paris made up of alchemists, artists, writers, bankers and the other woman starring in this story, Irene Hillel-Erlanger.
Irene was a poet, writer and film maker (her son went on to found Cannes film festival), she was friends with the composers Claude Debussy, Erik Satie and the poet John Coctaeu; she was also the writer of a little known but vitally important novel called ‘Voyages en Kaleidoscope’ which described the relationship of an assistant to a brilliant inventor who had come up with a device called the “thermometer of Vulcan and Helios” – this enabled the inventor to uncover the hidden nature of the universe and the underlying structure of solid matter – sounds suspiciously like Fulcanelli right?
It was soon widely known that it was him. His assistant, Margarette’s, identity also revealed. Margarette happened to be whom Irene dedicated the book to, so we can guess Irene wasn’t trying too hard to hide her friend’s identity.
Within a year of the books publication both Irene Hillel-Erlanger and Margeratte Louise Barbe were dead. Barbe died first, after allegedly drinking ‘potable gold’ in an alchemical “accident” and then Irene Hillel-Erlanger died after eaten poisoned oysters at a party being given in the honor of the books publication – it is believed both women had been poisoned for divulging an important alchemical secret.
And as for Fulcanelli?
Well, we don’t know what happened to him. He just disappeared, and as far as we know, he was the last alchemist that lived and practiced in Paris.
As you lie in the Jardins Tuileries in the summer, light a candle on an autumn morning in the Notre Damn or snuggle in Les Deux Magots in the winter, save a thought for the women who knew the last alchemist in Paris.
* Actually most recently Flamel is featured in the all time best book series ever, Harry Potter – in the book aptly named ‘The Philosophers Stone’. Nice one Rowling, you legend.
ALICE IN WANDERLUST – ROME – WITCHES, WOLVES BEARDS AND JESUS THE MAGICIAN
* 41.9000° N, 12.5000° E *
Have you ever wondered why Shakespeare warns Julius Ceasar of the “Ides of March?”
Or where Mary Shelly got her inspiration from Frankenstein?
It all goes back to witches in Rome.
Rome and its past is hard to summarize, Dante Alighieri said “the stone walls of Rome deserve reverence and the ground on which the city is built is more worthy than men say”, Carl Jung wouldn’t even step foot in the city for fear of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of its history.
Well, I’m not Carl G. Jung, so when one of my friends told me she had an exhibition in Rome, on my birthday, I was on the first plane out of here. The first plane out of here was a Ryanair flight – I’ll spare you the dull, monotonous horror of that and start at landing.
“Eh! You wonna taxi?”
“Si, er, yes …”
“You ride with the English, come in, itsa cheap!”
I don’t like making conversation in confined spaces, but I do like cheap rides, so we got in and whizzed off to another, more organized, couple’s destination. We spent the first few hours in quite a run down part of town because it was too hot to walk to a nice part, we were so exhausted in fact, we checked in to the hotel opposite a bar we were drinking in. The hotel was sort of like if Rubix Cube had invented a Travel Lodge, and then asked Dyson to suck the soul out of it.
After many hours of delibration as to why we had a fully functional cooker but no pots or pans, or plates, and several runs of Italian news, we eventually made our way down to the Circus Maximus and the Collosium.
To Jung’s credit, I realized as we walked through the city that the vast quantity of history in Rome is actually a bit overwhelming, even for the Romans, they’ve just reached saturation point. Ancient relics lie unguarded amongst rubble, crumbling edifices make the facades for new fashionable homes, every corner you turn is some fantastically ornate renaissance church or crumbling ancient ruin. There is just too much history for it all to be revered. So much so that the darker, or rather the more supernatural history of this ancient city, now famous for its violent animal circuses and the gladiatorial fights of the Colussium; has a past of dark arts and great goddesses that is all but forgotten. A love/fear relationship with magic and sorcery that lead one emperor (Nero) to study it and another (Augustus) to have all books related to magic burned.
But back in the Circus Maximus, it was still a warm autumn evening, just enough of a chill to need a cardigan at night, and the Circus was scattered with young Romans sitting on steps and smoking with as much gothic nonchalance as they could manage while still breathing.
The Circus Maximus is an ancient chariot racing stadium, locked between the Aventine and Palantine hills, hills made famous by the two men who founded Rome, Romulus and Remus – they’re the reason you may see two young boys suckling a wolf’s teat on your travels.
Romulus and Remus were born to a Princess, their father supposedly the God Mars, or Hercules, depending on who you trust. They were abandoned in a river and floated to a bed of reeds. Here a she-wolf is waiting to suckle them, and a woodpecker helps feed them (cute). The two brothers eventually hear of their birth rights and they head off to found a new city – Romulus wishing to found the new city on Palantine Hill, Remus on Avantine.
So, how do you settle a fraternal dispute like this?
Well, they settled this brotherly dispute with a fight to the death. This fight would lead to Remus’ demise and Romulus to found Rome on Palantine Hill. Swiftly after Rome’s founding Romulus does something that would grate on any believer in human rights and heads off to the local colony of the Sabines, where he and his men steal all their women, and bring them back for their own society. Charming.
It feels like this great deceit against women lead to a marked fear of them. From then on in Rome women were untrustworthy, unreliable, they were to be beaten to death if they drank, they were to be controlled.
A good way to control is by spreading fear; and so women who had once been great sorceresses, healers, oracles and astronomers, intelligent women like their male compatriots, all of a sudden became witches, became bad, and even more conveniently, any woman could be suspected and accused of being one.
The famous Roman poet Horace wrote about the two witch sisters Canidia and Sagana, at times in a humorous manner, at others, well, not.
In the humorous manner, they come to a graveyard at night when there is a full moon and pick herbs, tear apart a lamb and pour blood on graves to conjure up spirits. They bury a wolf’s beard and the fang of a spotted snake and burn a wax doll (sounding like a pretty good night so far …) But everything turns slightly farcical when the Priapus statue, who is narrating the poem, farts. The startled witches run away, one losing her false teeth and the other her wig.
Hilarious, I mean seriously, that’s some funny stuff.
Slightly less funny was episode 5, in which the two witches are even uglier. Canidia has locks entwined with twisting vipers and Sagana’s hair stands on end like “the bristles of a charging boar”. They are about to kill a boy in order to make a love potion and the witches need many other bizarre items for their potion: barren wild-fig wood that sprouts from gravestone cracks; cypress from a dead man’s door; screech owl’s eggs besmeared with gore of poison-toad; abundant weeds of bane and bones snatched from the jaws of starving dogs.
The best example of witches in literature though, has to be the witch Erichto who even scared the gods.
Created by the Roman poet Lucan in ‘Pharsalia’, Erichto hates on other witches for being too tame. Not only does she desecrate dead bodies, she creates her own bodies. In order to create her own hybrid human she steals the bloom off the face of a child, she cuts the hair of a dead adolescent, she snatches babies from their mothers’ wombs and she bends over a dead body to kiss it, opening the mouth with her teeth, biting the tongue, then sending a hissed message of terror down the throat to the shades of Styx.
She was fierce, an olden day Tyra Banks.
And with Erichto, the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s gothic Monster of Frankenstein can be traced all the way back to Roman myth.
Whether humorous or sinister, the view of women in ancient Rome was rarely flattering. This heavily ingrained trixy and sinister stereotype of women probably explains why Roman men felt it acceptable to perform another act of fear mongering against women and vicariously gain further control over them, by the commencement of the Roman Inquisition, where any woman who was accused of being a witch was tortured and executed. Further back in Roman history, women were executed by the thousands for supposedly causing an epidemic illness by witch craft.
Now, what makes all the killing and fear-mongering even more confusing is that, prior to this, the name ‘pharmakeus’ (sorcerer/magician/poison mixer) had been attributed to plenty of men, including 5 in Homer’s works with no negative connotations whatsoever.
Sorcery was actually first recorded as being practiced by the male sex. Pythagoras, the famous Mathematician, is an interesting character in regards to sorcery. Legend states he was able to avert pestilences and control elements, all things in the scope of witchcraft. His career however, was celebrated and not degraded like the female practice of sorcery.
And incredible thing is that Pythagoras is not even the most famous male magician to have been celebrated, on ancient Roman Christian sarcophagi Jesus commonly appears in the role of a magician. Of 414 total scenes on Ancient Roman Sarcophagi, archealogists counted 68 where Jesus or Peter use wands to perform miracles. In a few other scenes, Moses and Ezekiel also use a wand to bring water from a stone or to resurrect dry bones. Jesus’ wand is also almost always present in scenes of the multiplication of loaves and fishes.
I know. Pretty far out.
In today’s Rome, Jesus – who by the looks of things may be most famous magician that ever lived, is supremely venerated in The Sistine Chapel on the vast and most talked about ceiling in the world (by the genius Michelangelo) not as a magician connected with a higher power, but as a god physically related to a higher power, the view we are more familiar with.
We went to the Sistine Chapel, which is nestled in the Vatican City, on a hot Monday afternoon. Crossing the bridge over to the Vatican you feel a shift in atmosphere, a power pulsing from St Peters that protects all the houses surrounding from many things, including evil spirits and tax.
After a lot of queuing, ticket touting and roasting under the heavy Italian sun, we made it in to St Peters … Along with millions of other people being syphoned through the gates; which meant that whistful lingering and pensive loitering next to relics was not ok, because they are tourist attractions, and the tourists behind you want to see them. So we all funneled our way down through the ancient walls to the Sistine chapel like blood cells being pumped round a body with somewhere to be.
The Chapel itself, is hell on earth. It’s beautiful, sure it is, I’m sure it would be magical too if you were there on your own, but you’re not, you’re with 50,000 other people and 50 security guards that would rather no one was there. As you try to find your way to the mirage of the peaceful corner in the cattle scrum you are screamed at for standing in what is apparently an “aisle” – the aisle is a 4 inch space between two seething masses of people.
So, my advice: when in Rome and looking for a numinous experience, if you want to connect with something ancient and beautiful, if you want to feel something other than simmering rage and abstract panic, go to the Pantheon. All it is, is an ancient stone building, domed at the ceiling with a large circular hole at the top for the sky to fall in on you, and it is more magnificent than the ceiling in the Sistine. There it is, I said it, the real heavens are better than Michelangelo’s. Don’t like it? Talk to my lawyers*.
Today Rome’s dark underbelly is no longer witches and magic, the renaissance and Valentino have managed to transform Italian women back in to goddesses, no longer connected to that part of their past. Don’t get me wrong, the sexism is still there, it’s just now the magic’s gone; and there is a more prevalent darkness in Rome, a darker darkness, less clear and less superstitious, less human somehow.
A lot of the darkness is Heroin, which I suppose ultimately is some sort of corruption. Everywhere off the main pavements you’ll find needles and dealers, twice we nearly sat on needles and when walking along the river bank walked past as many used needles as ancient artefacts.
My friend’s exhibition was in the ‘trendy’ part of town, San Lorenzo. On our way there we got fantastically lost and walked past the other side of Rome, the under side, far too many times. The main station – Roma Termini was a kind of underworld, the street next to it completely silent but its corners filled to the brim with people lying in blankets, watching, thinking. It was always dark there, even in the day. But what was horrible was that you could feel the bad energy, you could feel the eyes, you could feel their thoughts and you really didn’t want to be in them.
As horrible, and as in desperate need of attention as that part of Rome was, that place at Roma Termini made me think, it was strange how much humans and their thoughts could transform the whole atmosphere of a place, how thoughts affected and therefor changed someone else’s reality; just as in St Peter’s, the volume of humans and their thoughts and desires and needs and reasons for being there transformed what might well have been a profound experience in to something else, and is just further proof we are all magicians of a kind.
It is, as Shakespeare often said, as you think it is.
* I have no lawyers.
ALICE IN WANDERLUST – MEXICO CITY – HOME OF THE 13 HEAVENS
* Latitude: 19*43° N – Longitude: 99*13° W *
Mexico City is a flash of taxis, flowers, street food, death and pink donuts, and it is incredible. It is like a haunted house built on ancient burial grounds, except the haunted house is one of the largest and most vibrant cities in the world and the burial ground is of one of the most advanced ancient civilizations in the world, so, except for those two smalldifferences, it’s exactly the same.
I landed in Mexico City with pretty much no money, having had my bank account kindly emptied by a couple of thieves in Costa Rica, but life’s cheap there and it is full, full of everything! Spanish Catholicism from the Conquistadores twixt with Aztec paganism leaves the city tingling with culture and an exquisite romance with death. As dangerous as it has been reported to be, there is no tangible sense of fear or danger, everyone seems happy, excited and occupied, or eating.
The Aztecs founded what we know as Mexico City, the precise spot upon which, what was then called ‘Tenochtitlan’ was founded was chosen after seeing an eagle fight a snake on the same spot – which I think we can we can all agree, is usually a pretty fine omen.
For the next 200 years, until the Spanish Conquistadores came and waved their machismo around, Tenochtitlan grew to a population of around 200,000 – to put this into context, at that point in time London had a population of 50,000.
Today scars of Americanization on the city are now more like giant skin grafts, but it is still filled with romance and creativity, as the wheel keeps turning and new generations are inspired by their past.
Two of the most famous Mexicans to be inspired by their Aztec heritage were the notorious Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera*. I first started reading about Frida at school and couldn’t believe, firstly what a fantastically strange artist she was, but also what an amazing woman she was – I quote “I drank to drown my sorrows, but the damned things learned how to swim.” A woman with demons (and a sense of humour) is a much truer reality to what we’re often fed, in my opinion anyway.
Frida and Diego are the two icons of the “Mexican Renaissance” that took place in the 1930’s as a renewed appreciation of Aztec culture. Both artists had very different ways of incorporating and celebrating their Aztec heritage, Rivera’s Frescos that adorn the walls of many of the buildings in Mexico and America, are more literal tales or Aztec ‘Steles’, paintings that tell a story. While Frida celebrated it through the use of symbolism, common themes in her art being bleeding hearts which to Aztecs represented “The place of union, where luminous consciousness is made,” and the dualities of life and death, male and female, and sun and moon.
When you’re having a bad day and need to put your situation in perspective, have a read of Frida’s famously tragic life; the deeper you read in to it, the more minute nuances to her tragedy you will find (and you willcry), but the two most prolific in her life were the polio she caught as a child that deformed one of her legs, and a tram crash, that broke her pelvis and spinal column leaving her incapable of child birth and with little attachment to this life “I hope the exit is joyful and I hope never to return.”
The Aztecs, mostly thought to be war mongering, heart wrenching, human scarifying hell monsters (thank you, Mel Gibson) actually appear to have been rather poetic and melancholy souls, an exotic yet Keats-like race. In between the all the heart wrenching and warmongering life was a struggle and they were in also constant existential sadness. An example is this ‘Cantare’, an Aztec poem and musing on life …
“Not forever on earth, but briefly
The Aztecs had an incredibly spiritual perception of life and death, viewing them as inseparable parts of the same great cosmic cycle of energy. The one came with the other. Life and death were simply two sides of the same reality, life will follow death as surely as moonrise will follow sunset. There was no concept of hell, but there were, or are, 13 heavens as far as Aztecs were concerned, levels to which one might hope to aspire varied from ‘The Realm of the Moon’ to the realms of ‘ ‘The Lord of Dawn’ and ‘The Realms of Birds.’ Sounds great to me, no wonder they kept throwing themselves of pyramids!
I visited the pyramids The Aztec’s created to symbolise the concept of duality, of life and death, which was often represented as the passing of day in to night – the Sun God and Moon Goddess. The pyramids constructed for these celestial bodies lie about 30 miles north of Mexico City, past the shockingly vast favelas that hem the city, in a ancient city called Teotihuacan “City of Gods” where they believed the gods had gathered to create the sun and moon after the last world ended. When I went, maybe a few centuries too late, it was full of pasty, badly dressed tourists, just like me, which I think removed a touch of gravitas, but there still rests the incredible Pyramid of the Moon and the third largest Pyramid in the world, ‘the Pyramid of the Sun’ which is aligned to the dog star Sirius, also sacred to the ancient Egyptians and has led some to suggest a link between the great pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, which would be a pretty big deal if true. Should you managed to find a quiet spot here, it’s kind of otherworldly.
While I was in town I decided to dedicate a whole day to the Diego Rivera Museum. I arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to get down and really learn some shit, aaaand it was closed, completely boarded up, they must’ve seen me coming. However, the ‘Casa Azul’ (Blue House) where Kahlo was born and died was open, and is where she and Diego constructed their own little Aztec monument, a miniature Pyramid of the Sun, maybe for her monkey?
Today the house stands as one of Mexico’s many (open) museums including Museum of Mexico City, fascinating for many reasons but specifically the ‘Legend of The Crystal Skulls’. Yes, blessed Indiana Jones has its roots in truth, or legend anyway. The Museum houses one of the 13 rumored Crystal Skulls that are supposed to have been created by Aztec and Mayan cultures. These 13 skulls supposedly share information about the origins and destiny of humankind. One day, it’s said, at a time of great need, all the crystal skulls would be rediscovered and brought together to reveal their message for humanity. Each Skull represents a different force and power, one skull in particular, the “Skull of Love/Doom” has been claimed to produce visions, crash computer hard drives and emit blue lights from its eyes (I had a similar experience after prolonged exposure to Cilit Bang). When Stephen Spielberg tied these skulls with Alien Civilizations, well, he wasn’t the only one. Many New Age beliefs are that the Crystal Skulls are exactly that, relics of an alien civilization. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it!
Mexico’s aliens may be hiding, but it is still alive with the dead. Feasts and festivals that are 3,000 years old are still celebrated, such as the now infamous ‘Dia de los Muertos’, ‘Day of the Dead’. Rituals like this are still the core of Mexican identity and superstitions dating back to old Aztec moon lore still preside, such as pregnant women wearing red knickers with safety pins (instead of the Aztec red string and arrow head) during an eclipse of the moon to protect their babies from developing a cleft palate, as it was believed then that an eclipse of the moon was it’s face being bitten, and the same would happen to their baby. Sadly cleft palate is caused by factors that in no way include the moon, but the legend lingers.
The Aztecs are part of the collective consciousness and spirit of Mexico City and through them, Fridha Kahlo, Diego Rivera and many more have and are evolving it, which is why it has the power to keep luring me back.
N.B. The Aztecs were so advaced that Biochemists have now analysed the pharmacological effectiveness of many of the plants that Aztec women used as medicine, 85% of them produced the physiological effects sought by Aztec curers and 60% would be considered effective treatments according to Western bio-medical standards. Next Summer Cold you get, see what the Aztecs were taking.
* Diego Rivera’s full name was ‘Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez’ … wow.
ALICE IN WANDERLUST – THE STORY OF SEVILLE
Latitude: 37*22’N – Longitude: 5*59’5″W
Seville in summer hits you with its warm air and yellow petals smattered on the black tarmac road rushing you to its heart. The center of Seville is entirely constructed of pale yellow and white limestone and feels old; in fact it feels older than old, because it’s ancient. Seville is literally built on myths and legends; founded by Hercules on one of his final quests and tied by many archealogists to what was “not mere fiction, fable or myth, but a true story as Plato always maintained”, The Lost City of Atlantis. Many even believe there is mounting evidence that the area of national park surrounding Seville, which suffered a very similar fate to Atlantis, is in fact the true location of The Lost City. Unbelievable as this may sound, I find life is more interesting when you begin entertaining what was previously beyond belief, and Seville is a good place to start.
Back in the here and now, as you trip along Seville’s thin, cobbled streets filled with orange trees, horse and carriages and small shaded squares echoing the sound of chaffinches and flamenco guitars, you know you’re tripping the tracks of somewhere magical; and all of these tracks seem to lead to Seville’s Cathedral or the ‘Giralda’, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. When the cathedral was rebuilt in 1401 they said “Let us build a church so beautiful and so grand that those who see it finished will think we are mad”. I can certify that yes, they were one hundred percent bonkers – it’s exterior is mind blowing, weathered stone carved into jagged saints, kings and turrets jutting up towards the heavens. The interior is draped in gold, silver and marble; it contains the remains of Christopher Columbus, paintings by Goya and its impossibly high ceilings, arched like a giants ribcage, fill it with air and atmosphere. But for all it’s grandeur, and as a bit of a relief, it has some funny little additions through the ‘Door of the Lizard’. Here you find not just an orange grove but a hanging wooden crocodile, and beside it, on closer inspection is a ‘bit’, like a horses bit, but larger. These strange specimens come from a domesticated giraffe and a real crocodile (which was originally stuffed but decomposed), both of which were gifts for a princess from the king of Egypt, to woo her. His proposal was, to my amazement, rejected but the exotic gifts were accepted – what princess doesn’t want a live crocodile and a tamed giraffe? Um, none.
Almost next door to the cathedral a great wall rises from the cobbled streets, crenelated where time hasn’t had his way; the entrance a huge wall of red with castle-like belfries either side and a great lion looming over the arch-way. Enclosed within this is the Alcazar of Seville, built as a Moorish fort in the 10th now Seville’s Royal Palace. Behind its defensive shell the interior is fit for a king, and any gods or holy ghosts he may be entertaining too. The carvings on the walls are minute, repetitive and vast. A myriad mythical creatures; centaurs, satyrs and unicorns cover huge symmetrical arches, cool waters flow between rooms and great golden domes carved with thousands of stars in the ‘Ambassadors Halls’ symbolise the universe. The movement of stars and planets was given much more significance in the time when this was built and astrology was an important branch of occult study to the Moors, who were famous for their magical and alchemical studies. I spent a good proportion of my time in there looking over my shoulder, half expecting an apparition of some sort, as what they’ve left behind is this feeling of a time where so much more was possible, as if the charge of their imaginations and thoughts still electrify the air, waiting to tap you on the back.
– Shake it off –
Because a short walk through the old town from here you reach the shopping center of Seville, not necessarily where you’d head searching for myths and legends, but this street is ‘La Calle de Sierpe’ or ‘Serpent Street’. The Legend of The Serpent’ has been folk lore for generations of Sevillanos, dating back to the 15th century. During Seville’s golden age after Columbus’ discovery of The Americas, the city’s children started to go missing, one by one, and never came back. This continued for months until a man, who demanded to remain anonymous, sent word to the ruler of the city that he would solve the mystery and find the culprit, but, and minor detail here – this all hinged on him being released from prison. This man was Argüeso Melchor de Quintana. As a Bachelor of Arts and rebeller of the King, the powers that be were rather dubious as to this freedom fighters motives (I imagine him a little like Rick from the young ones) and refused his century (*release). During Seville’s golden age after Columbus’ discovery release. Determined to save the cities wee-bee ones, he made a tunnel to escape the prison, presumably covering the hole with a picture of Raquel Welch, and managed to escape. As he crawled through the city’s secret underground passages he made rather an exciting discovery and promptly decided to return to the prison, not wanting to live life as a fugitive. He informed the city’s leaders that he had killed the culprit and led the notary to the place where the child stealer lay, dead, with a dagger buried in him to the hilt. The child stealer however, was not a man but a giant snake, surrounded by the bones of the children. The defeated serpent under the city was dragged out of its lair, and presented to the public on Espaderos Street, which from that day forth was known as “Calle de la Sierpe”. Quintana was granted his freedom, settled in Seville, and married the daughter of the city’s ruler. Nice job if you can get it.
Now, every story must draw a close and every story should leave your eyes a little wider to the world, so this one’s going to end with a man who proved unicorns exist. He also brought intellectual pursuit to Spain and the rest of Europe, aaand peace against the barbaric Visigoths. But mostly, he proved unicorns exist. St Isidore was “the last scholar of the ancient world”, last of the great Latin Church fathers and mentioned with reverence in Dante’s ‘Inferno’. Some important information about Isidore’s childhood is … he was born in to a family of soon-to- be-saints. His elder brother being the future St Leander, his younger brother St Fulgenitus, and his sister, St Florentina – yeup, nothing like a bit of sibling rivalry to get your blood pumping.
So Isidore grew up and into his elder brothers shoes as Bishop of Seville and ‘protector of the monks’, but his most famous achievement is his ‘Etymologiae’ or ‘Origins’, the first encyclopedia. His idea was that the road to knowledge was by way of words, and further, that their true essence is only revealed with the knowledge of the origin of an objects name. I think the most interesting in the series of Etymolgiae is the ‘Bestiaries’ section (manuscripts listing animals both real and slightly more far-fetched and explaining the original meaning of their name). For example: “Bees in Latin are ‘apes’ and so called either because they bind themselves together with their feet, which, in Latin is ‘pes’ or because they are born without feet ‘a-pes’.” ‘Etymologiae’ was the pursuit to find the origins and ultimately the “soul” of each word, which he assembled using extracts of many texts from classical antiquity and printed them in hundreds of languages, texts that would otherwise have been lost to us, texts such as this: “The Greek word rhinoceros refers to the same beast as the names monoceros or unicorn. This is a four-footed beast that has a single horn on its forehead; it is very strong and pierces anything it attacks. The unicorn is too strong to be caught by hunters, except by a trick: if a virgin girl is placed in front of a unicorn and she bares her breast to it, all of its fierceness will cease and it will lay its head on her bosom, and thus quieted is easily caught.”
These snippets of the past may sound like long forgotten history, passive in the ‘now’, but the past is actually very present. So enamoured with their mythological founder, Renaissance Seville built ‘The Two Pillars of Hercules’ in the city’s centre. These two Pillars can also be found on the Spanish flag, and funnily enough, the American dollar sign, today. Myth, religion and legend are ingrained in the identity of Sevillanos, their souls feel as old as the buildings around them; and it’s as if you can sense they are speaking straight to yours, searching for your essence, what you’re actually about, like a heat seeking missile and ignoring all the bells and whistles, just shooting at you straight. Gentlemen are reserved and chivalrous and the women are respected and strong. Living, breathing, proof that Seville’s myths have become so established they are more like tradition, a magic thread woven into every day life.
N.B. Under no circumstances is it recommended to bare your breasts, virginal or not, to a rhino.