Tuesday, 29 June 2010


No-one can now be sure of the origin of the Runic alphabet with which many of us will be at least vaguely familiar. The ‘stick like’ almost primitive looking symbols often appear in an article or a fantasy tale in magazines or novels, they seem to hold a fascination that lies deep within the consciousness of many of us.

So what about the history and meaning behind them?

Even the word ‘Rune’ provokes debate amongst scholars. In Old Norse, a ‘run’ was a secret, in Old German, it is connected with the ‘raunen’ to whisper, and in Welsh the word for a secret is ‘rhin’ or ‘rin’. By the Middle Ages to ‘roon’ a person meant to whisper in somebody’s ear. Little wonder the Runes have acquired a mystery all of their own.

We know the Norsemen used them, did they bring their carved stones with them on their frequent ‘visits to Britain? Or did the Celts have them first and was it the old inhabitants of Britain that gave them to the world? There is some evidence that the people of what is now Alpine Northern Italy read with the Runes and some antiquarians argue that the Etruscans or even the Ancient Greeks knew the meanings long before they were used in the Northernmost lands.

Certainly the Runes were used as an alphabet just as ours is today but the Shamen or wise men of the tribe or group knew they were central to the arts they practised. Anxious people would consult the old wisdoms and have the past and present explained and the future laid before them.

Runecasters will generally use 24 stones or possibly 25, the extra one being blank. I use the additional one and if it is selected I interpret this to mean that the querent has more opportunity than is normally the case to change, grow and take a new direction. The actual names for the stones vary depending on whether the Runecaster favours the Nordic, Germanic or Celtic variety but they are close enough in name and symbolic meaning for this to be a minor issue in the overall scheme of things.

Arranged in three groups or Aetts (clans or tribes), most of the Runic symbols are based on earthy, primeval concepts. The societies in which they were revered and central to the culture largely lived closer to nature than we can imagine. A crop failure was likely to mean starvation, life expectancy was far lower than in or westernised, sanitised world today.
The people who used the alphabet symbols were focused fiercely on a lifestyle that is beyond our real understanding. They had much more down to earth, basic attitudes towards life, death, sex, etc.

It is worth taking a detailed look at the Os rune, symbolising as it does the God Odin.

Odin was very far from the benevolent forgiving deity that we associate with the Christian religion. He is usually depicted as a somewhat scruffy looking old man, wearing a dark cloak and a soft felt cap, maybe dark blue in colour, pulled across his face to try to disguise the fact hat he has only one eye! Legend tells us he sacrificed the eye to the God Mimir to gain wisdom but he may also have hung in agony on the cosmic tree Ygddrasil to prove he was immortal. He had the power to change shape into any animal and roam the countryside in these guises. However, it is in his human form he more commonly appeared at crossroads to strike terror into the hearts of lonely travellers often accompanied by two ravens and a wolf. He could raise the dead, calm the winds and make his enemies go blind and deaf but it is his cunning and trickery which mark him out in history. He would offer ‘deals’ to mortals which usually meant the bargaining of their souls, indeed some believe the tales of mortals being tricked into selling their souls to the Devil may originate with Odin.

How this Rune is interpreted is a story in itself but as with every stone, the interpretation is dependent on the context in which it appears and set against the other Runes selected.

As A Runecaster of many years experience, I am of the opinion that it is the very primeval, ancient and basic nature of the runes that has allowed the art of casting to survive in our modern technologically obsessed world. Deep within us all, there is a feeling, a desire to explore our inner selves and perhaps a belief that only by drawing on our collective past can we can really hope to move forward to our real future.

As a modern day Runecaster, I explain to those that consult me that there is no ‘magic’ in the stones, the only magic is within all of us. The Runes work with the two way participation between caster and client, a joining together of hearts and minds. The process works because the societies that used the Runic alphabet were so much more in tune with life, the earth and the world beyond. Their animals and the elements were almost a part of them in a way that our modern, gadget and technologically obsessed world could never comprehend. I see the Runes as a bunch of keys that open the door to a real world, away of learning about life and self. We all habitually have our eyes closed but in the time we see the Runes and read their message our eyes open. The stones contain knowledge, truths, even secrets and casting Runes is the most dramatic, emotional and passionate experience for the reader and hopefully, some of that feeling envelops the one for whom the caster works.

All it takes is belief in yourself.

For more information on the art of Runecasting, please contact me on:


Friday, 25 June 2010


Witchcraft in England, has an old, ancient history. Witchcraft is probably the oldest of all religions and was alive well before the Druids.

Long before the famed Salem Witch Trials, thousands upon thousands of men, women, and even children were being tortured and massacred throughout Europe. These horrible acts were even condoned by the churches. Towards the end of the thirteenth century witchcraft was proclaimed an act punishable by death. But death did not come easily to those accused.

But in the years prior to the thirteenth century, the witch was a respected member of the community; they were valued, not feared, since they helped ease pain and healed people and their animals. The fear factor came much later. Witches were feared because they could do things that the majority of other people could not do. For example, witches used hypnosis to make childbirth pain free. The Christian Church taught that such powers could only come from the Devil. Telepathy, faith healing, pre-cognition, clairvoyance, and astral-travelling was all part of witchcraft in the past, as was the knowledge of plants and healing herbs. In primitive times religion and magic were virtually the same. Priests were magicians and magicians were priests.

Those claiming to heal outside the context of the Church (faith healing through prayer) were thought to have obtained their skills from the Devil. In 1563, the Scottish Witchcraft Act said that even people, who consulted witches to cure their various maladies, were as guilty as those who practiced witchcraft. These patients were seen as supporting their cause. The witch was traditionally old, ugly, and female.

The Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for "The Hammer of Witches", or "Der Hexenhammer" in German) is a famous treatise on witches, written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, an Inquisitor of the Catholic Church, and was first published in Germany in 1487.[3] Jacob Sprenger is also often attributed as an author, but some scholars now believe that he became associated with the Malleus Maleficarum largely as a result of Kramer's wish to lend his book as much official authority as possible.

The Malleus Maleficarum, was essentially a guidebook on what to look for in a witch and how to successfully kill them. France and Germany were especially known for their gruesome punishments.

The main purpose of the Malleus was to attempt to systematically refute arguments claiming that witchcraft does not exist, discredit those who expressed scepticism about its reality, to claim that witches were more often women than men, and to educate magistrates on the procedures that could find them out and convict them.

The first law against witchcraft was laid down by King Henry VIII in 1542.

Two further laws, in 1563 and 1604, made a person liable to receive the death penalty for using witchcraft, charms or sorcery.
These laws came in quite handy since a charge of witchcraft was used against one of his wives, Ann Boleyn.

During the witch hunts' period, which lasted almost two centuries, 2000 people were accused in England and 1000 executed.

Most supposed witches were usually old women, and invariably poor. Any who were unfortunate enough to be 'crone-like', snaggle toothed, sunken cheeked and having a hairy lip were assumed to possess the 'Evil Eye'. If they also had a cat this was taken a proof, as witches always had a 'familiar', the cat being the most common.

In Essex alone, 317 women and 23 men were tried for witchcraft, and over 100 were hanged. Suffolk saw 68 executions.

This was largely the work of the notorious Matthew Hopkins, resident of Manningtree and the Witch-Finder General of Essex.

Hopkins began his career in 1644 by questioning one of his elderly neighbours, a one-legged woman named Elizabeth Clarke.

Under torture, she gave evidence leading him to another five witches.

The trial took place at Chelmsford. In all, 32 women were implicated and 28 were convicted.

Hopkins preferred tortures which shed no blood.

Sleep deprivation seems to have been the most popular form of torture, as it caused hallucination and was a very effective way of obtaining confessions, but he also employed the ‘pricking' method.

It was believed that if a person entered into a pact with the Devil, he kissed or bit them, leaving his mark on their body.

A mole or birthmark could be seen as a witch mark. Many witchfinders would stab at these marks and, if the accused did not bleed or no impression / indentation appeared on their skin, guilt had been established.

It has been suggested that Hopkins often used a spring-loaded knife, with retractable blade, to ensure conviction.

With the publication of Malleus Maleficarum all across Europe fingers began to fly.

Accusations were made, and the guilty party was often tortured and made to confess to witchcraft and evil deeds. No evidence was needed to convict. Europe became obsessed with ridding themselves of witches. Witch hunters popped up all throughout the Continent.

As the need to punish and kill witches grew, dozens and dozens of torture tools and methods were developed. One such item was the bootikens. These were boots that went from the person's ankles to knees. Wedges were hammered up the length of the boot into the person's leg, breaking and crushing bones as it went. Another tool used was called the Pear. It was a pear shaped apparatus that was often inserted into orifices. It was then expanded by way of a screw. It was often expanded enough until it tore and mangled which ever orifice it had been inserted in. Death would follow shortly, from either blood loss or infection. It was usually equipped with sharp spikes at the end so that a person could also be stabbed with it, usually in the neck. Another device known as Turcas was used to tear the fingernails out. This was followed by sticking pins or needles into the raw and exposed skin of the fingers.

Using red hot pincers against a witch's body was also a favourite. Often a pincer was used to tear off pieces of flesh and in some cases inserted into vaginas and rectums. Many times a person would be stripped naked, horse whipped, and then would have the pincers used on them. Women sometimes had their breasts torn off with hot pincers to further humiliate them.

Crushing a witch was often used both to kill and force a confession. The accused would be made to lie on the ground or a table and usually a board was placed on top of them. As they lay there being questioned, they would slowly place large rocks upon the board. They would add more and more until the person confessed and then, once having a confession, would add more until the person was no longer able to breathe. It was a slow and painful death.

A variation on crushing was stoning. Stoning allowed a mob of people to gather around the accused and pelt them with stones until the person was killed. Depending on the situation a person could be battered for minutes or hours before succumbing to death. Stonings were not always organized events, in some communities a mob would develop before the so-called witch could be tried.

Another method used to gain a confession was called the Strappado. In this case, the persons wrists were bound behind their back with a rope. The rope was then hoisted over a ceiling beam. The rope was pulled until the person was suspended in the air and then they were viciously dropped. This was repeated until the persons shoulders became dislocated.

From country to country, the methods varied. But no matter where you were, if you were accused, you were in for pain, humiliation, and ultimate suffering.

I'll be posting this to Frequently Felt in a day or so.

Thursday, 17 June 2010


Was there something sinister about Lewis Carroll's fixation with seven-year-old Alice Liddell? Not necessarily, says Katie Roiphe.

The Guardian, Monday 29 October 2001

It is true that the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, otherwise known as Lewis Carroll, author of the inimitable classics Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, liked little girls. Or, as he once wrote: "I am fond of children (except boys)." He took exquisite, melancholy photographs of little girls. He befriended little girls on trains, and beaches, and in the houses of friends. And one particular little girl, Alice Liddell, came to be his muse and great passion.

Unfortunately for Dodgson, the 21st century does not look kindly on a single man who is beguiled by seven-year-olds. Feminist critics have darkly suggested that Dodgson was a paedophile. They have condemned the beautiful photographs he took and objected to his objectification of the immature female body, and read all sorts of rapacious nonsense into the Alice books.

At the other extreme, many of Dodgson's defenders have protested too much. They have attempted to argue that he was utterly without feelings for little girls. One of his early biographers wrote, "There is no evidence that he felt or inspired any pangs of tender passion", when of course there was an abundance of evidence that he did. His defenders tend to portray him as a shy, stuttering bachelor with a fondness for children that may as well have been a fondness for stamps or porcelain puppies.

Is it possible that neither view of him is correct - that he was neither the child molester nor the pure, white-haired reverend? It is possible that our crude categories, our black and white views of romantic feeling, cannot contain someone like Dodgson. It is almost impossible for us to contemplate a man who falls in love with little girls without wanting to put him in prison. The subtleties, for those of us still mired in the paranoia’s of the 20th century, are hard to grasp. When one thinks of a paedophile, one thinks of a lustful, over-the-top, drooling Nabokov love, but that is not Lewis Carroll. His love was more delicate and tortured and elusive; his warmth, his strange, terrified passion, more intricate and complicated than anything encompassed by a single word.

Dodgson's affection for what he called his "child friends" was always mingled with a vague yearning. He wrote to one 10-year-old girl, "Extra thanks and kisses for the lock of hair. I have kissed it several times - for want of having you to kiss, you know, even hair is better than nothing." This is typical of his correspondence. He converted whatever his feelings were into the whimsical, quasi-romantic banter that eventually made its way into the Alice books. He wrote to one mother of a potential visit with her daughter, "And would it be de rigueur that there should be a third to dinner? Tête à tête is so much the nicest."
There was a romantic intensity to the friendships that Dodgson struck up with children, a hint of hunger, of never quite getting enough. This was especially true of his relationship with Alice. There was always a sense that he wanted more of her. And yet, can we really blame him for that - as long as he didn't act on his feelings? If he turned himself inside out, turned the world inside out with his powerful imagination, in order to avoid them?

He was not alone in his obsession. The era seemed to breed a certain type of neurasthenic man who had a well-developed and intellectually complicated disdain for overt physicality and who found himself drawn to pre-teens.

Take John Ruskin. He also fell under the spell of an Alice, among other young girls he encountered. One particular street urchin whom he glimpsed in Italy made a big impression on him. It is one of the paradoxes of Victorian culture that the sentimentality, the frilly, sugar-sweet view of the child often coexisted with darker sexual urges; that they fed each other, and the squeamishness about sex led to a perverse attraction to anything innocent and pure. Children were safe, and in their safety, certain thoughts - dirty, sensual thoughts - were allowed to flourish.

It is almost impossible to claim that Dodgson was drawn to little girls on a purely spiritual plane. His deep aesthetic appreciation of their physical presence was too conspicuous. He wrote to Gertrude Thomson, an artist who sketched girlish fairies and nymphs, "I confess I do not admire naked boys in pictures. They always seem... to need clothes, whereas one hardly sees why the lovely forms of girls should ever be covered up."

It's clear, then, that Dodgson had a submerged erotic fascination with the nubile female form. But what to make of it? What if he did love children, and in that love was a sexual element? What if he admired the bodies of little girls and never touched one? There is no doubt that he was tormented by what he called "the inclinations of my sinful heart". Even his mathematical writings were marked by his struggle. In the introduction to Curiosa Mathematica, Part II, he wrote that fixing one's mind on mathematics as one lay in bed could ward off "unholy thoughts, which torture with their hateful presence, the fancy that would fain be pure". Strong language for a book about trigonometry.

The picture we get of is of a man afraid of his own dreams, struggling for command over himself. In one of his most charming analyses, the biographer Morton Cohen actually charted Dodgson's moments of greatest torment and insomnia in his diaries and found that they correlated to the days on which he saw Alice.

But Dodgson's response to any heightened agitation he felt with children was this: he sat with Alice in a boat gliding along the glittering river and made up stories, the more outlandish the better. His feelings rhymed and punned themselves into expression. He chatted her up with the manic energy of Wonderland. His frustration, his alienation, blossomed into the caterpillar at the hookah and Humpty Dumpty and the Mad Hatter. He channelled his devotion into a wild and lovely literary universe; his imagination so dangerous and inflamed, it fled the real world. He called the Alice books a "love-gift". And because this love is unrequited, because it is impossible, ethereal, because he cannot allow himself to fully feel it, there is a hint of sadness. As he puts it, "a shadow of a sigh" trembles through the story.

To me, there is a nobility in a self-restraint so forceful that it spews out stuttering tortoises and talking chess pieces rather than focus on the matter at hand. There is something touching about a man who fights the hardest fight in the world: his own desire.

You can feel the loneliness on the page. You can the feel the longing in the photographs. You can witness the self-contempt in his diaries. How can one not feel sympathy for a man who writes in his diary, "I pray to God to give me a new heart", but is stuck, in spite of his astonishing powers of invention, his brilliance, his immortal wit, with the one he has.

He had impure thoughts, yes. What matters, in the end, is what he did with them.

Katie Roiphe's novel about Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, “Still She Haunts Me”, is published by Review, RRP £10.


I shall be posting this essay to Frequently Felt in a day or so.

Friday, 11 June 2010


For a man in Victorian times there were two kinds of women: 'nice' women of your own class, whom you married; and prostitutes or women of easy virtue, whom you went to bed with. Victorian society looked indulgently on men who sowed their wild oats. For respectable women it was a different story: they were expected to be virgins when they married. This meant that, to gain sexual experience, men would resort to prostitutes. Unfortunately, with prostitutes came the threat of a sexually transmitted or venereal disease, such as syphilis or gonorrhoea.

As well as being painful and deeply embarrassing, venereal disease, if untreated, could lead to sterility, impotence, madness and eventually death. Penicillin would not be discovered until the 1920s and would not be available as a medicine until the Second World War. In the 19th century, the main treatment was mercury, in the form of calomel, ointments, steam baths, pills, and other concoctions. It was crude, painful and largely ineffective, as well as having side-effects such as tooth loss, kidney damage, anaemia, mouth, throat, and skin ulcerations; neurological damage; and death.

Research into an effective treatment for syphilis was controversial because of the perception that a widely available cure would increase “immoral” behaviour.

In Victorian days the official line on sex was that it was solely for the purpose of producing children. It wasn't supposed to be fun. So, however tolerant the Victorians may have been in practice of men having sexual adventures, venereal disease was, in some quarters, regarded as God's punishment - the wages of sin.

This is one reason for the flourishing trade in virgins - for those upper class men who could afford them. They were not necessarily paedophiles; but were protecting themselves by having sex with a woman who had never had sex before. She could not be infected with these diseases.

There was another, more chilling reason, why virgins were so highly prized. It was believed that sex with a virgin could actually cure a man who was infected with syphilis.

By the middle of the 19th century the authorities were increasingly worried about the high incidence of venereal disease among soldiers and sailors. For this reason the Contagious Disease Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869 were passed. They allowed known prostitutes working in garrison towns or naval bases to be examined, often brutally. If they were found to be infected they could be imprisoned in state institutions.

Women were assumed to be the source of infection and the Acts were deigned exclusively to protect men. The men themselves were not examined, so that there was every chance of a client passing a disease on to a prostitute, rather than the other way around.

However, Victorian society was not concerned about prostitutes who were infected with incurable diseases by their clients. It was the danger of men passing on venereal disease to their wives and families that caused anxiety and moral outrage.

Moral reformers such as Josephine Butler campaigned against the Contagious Disease Acts. They claimed that they were sexually discriminating in that they laid all the blame for 'immorality' on women. The Acts were finally repealed in 1886.

Syphilis first appeared in Europe in the 1500s. But by the Victorian era, it was rampant. Thousands endured paralysis, blindness and insanity from the infection before finally dying.

Syphilis in the Victorian era was known to be an infectious disease that entered the body through a minute cut or small wound. The primary impact of the disease would be a lesion or a sore at the initial “site of inoculation.” Six to eight weeks later, a secondary eruption would flare up, generally first pink in colour and eventually copper. In this second stage of syphilis, symptoms such as depression and chilling in the joints and limbs would often occur and within weeks or years disappear spontaneously. In its tertiary stage, syphilis affected the brain, liver, lungs, and muscle. This disease was most often spread through sexual contact but it also spread congenitally, where mothers would infect the infants in their womb.

As I write, syphilis cases are rising. Some hospitals in major British cities report that they are now treating hundreds of patients a year, compared to none at all just a few years ago. In the past two years, there have been outbreaks in Manchester and London through unprotected sex.

The SYPHILIS AND THE VICTORIANS blog post has been compiled using sources from the Web. It is almost 7 years since I first posted this, it is still relevant today.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010


The five women stare at you, glare at you from the canvas. They are naked; all prostitutes from Avignon, a street in Barcelona famed for its brothel. Pablo Picasso painted this deconstruction of reality in 1909. The eight foot square painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon now hangs in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

When French writer Guillaume Apollonaire introduced Picasso to the French artist Georges Braque in 1907, little did he realize that he was uniting two people to give birth to one of the most revolutionary styles of art that came to be known as cubism. The French artist Paul Cezanne of the post-impressionist era was an inspiring influence on both Picasso and Braque in developing cubism. ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, the famous Picasso painting of 1907 was a prelude to the development of cubism.

But why cubism? It’s weird isn’t it? What’s it for? Picasso had the talent to paint beautifully; conventionally. What is the point of this disturbing picture? This fractured image of five ugly, naked women? Perhaps Picasso is delving for a greater truth, than had so far been expressed by Art. Life isn’t always pretty, especially when you bring sex into it. Those rough primal urges, that have nothing to do with making love, but everything to do with fucking.

In cubist artworks, objects are broken up, analysed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. Often the surfaces intersect at seemingly random angles, removing a coherent sense of depth. The background and object planes interpenetrate one another to create the shallow ambiguous space, one of cubism's distinct characteristics. Picasso leaves only enough signs of the real world to supply a tension between the subject of the painting and the viewer. In this painting the figures are contorted by cubism. Cubism smashes through protocol, forcing the viewer to “look” in a different way.

But what then, does Picasso want the viewer to think about these five women? Is he saying something about women in general, or these women in particular?

In the preparatory studies, the figure at the left was a sailor entering a brothel. Picasso, wanting no anecdotal detail to interfere with the sheer impact of the work, decided to eliminate it in the final painting. The only remaining allusion to the brothel lies in the title.

Look directly at Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and speculate on its meaning. You can't. You never get as far as deciding it is a painting of five women, let alone concluding that they're prostitutes, or that it reflects male fears, or reach for any of the slick ways we customarily turn images into words. In order to interpret it, you must look away, or unfocus your eyes. Actually looking at the picture means moving constantly from one facet to another; it never lets you settle on one resolved perception. Most of all, this is a painting about looking. The five women look at you, with a fierce, antagonistic, demonic glare. They are difficult, scary, mad. Their glare is menacing; their bodies angular and disjointed. Picasso abandons perspective in favour of a flat, two-dimensional picture plane.

Five pink women are entangled in silver and blue draperies. Two of them stand with arms raised to flaunt their breasts, staring at you out of huge black eyes. The other three are masked: one in a fleshy brown wooden simulacrum of a face as she stands in profile at the left of the picture; the two at the right in African masks, one of them intruding from behind the jagged cloth while the other squats among fabric diamonds. On a plate, there is a collection of blatantly meaningful fruit: a scything blade of melon with testicular grapes, an apple and a pear. This is a painting of nudes in which there is scarcely a curve to be seen - elbows sharp as knives, hips and waists geometrical silhouettes, triangle breasts.

The painting is square to the eye (in reality there are a few centimetres more to its height than its width), which makes you to attend to space and symmetry. Or rather, the squareness puts you on your mettle, to look at this perpetual motion machine that never loses its vitality.

Picasso drew his first designs for what became Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in the winter of 1906-07. He developed his ideas intensively, in a programme of conscious planning that resembled the great academic projects of Leonardo or Géricault, before finally painting his 8ft square canvas in the early summer. With that painting, the nature of reality was altered as profoundly as it would be by the physics of Picasso's contemporary, Albert Einstein.

Culturally, the 20th century began in 1907. Consider the dates of other works of high modernism. In music, Schoenberg's Erwartung was composed in 1909 and Stravinsky began The Rite of Spring in 1910. James Joyce didn't get started on Ulysses until 1914, by which time Picasso was into the final stages of cubism

At the time of its first exhibition in 1916, the painting was deemed immoral. The art critic André Salmon (1881–1969) gave it its current name; Picasso had always referred to it as Le Bordel (The Brothel).

The women confront you, perhaps daring you to judge them. Maybe their unhinged anguish is resonant, with the first time you were caught looking at something that was deeply private.

I'm going to be posting this essay on M.Christian's excellent blog; Frequently Felt