Loch nam Breac Dearga
Loch nam Breac Dearga, on the northern shore of Loch Ness

Some of my oldest posts vanished a while ago with the disappearance of their original home, the now-defunct Charles Fort Institute blogs. For the most part they cover neglected topics and still have some value – so I will try to make time to republish them from time to time. Here’s the first, a January 2010 exploration of a folkloric trope with distinct links to lake monster lore.

Loch nam Breac Dearga really isn’t much to look at: a puddle on the western slopes of Meal Fuar-mhonaidh (2,284 ft/696m) in the Highlands of Scotland. Yet once upon a time the little mountain lochan (above) possessed a fearsome reputation. Sir John Murray, the great oceanographer who devoted more than a decade of his life to a comprehensive survey of Scottish lakes, was told that “this loch was locally reputed to be of great depth, or even supposed to be bottomless.”

The tradition of bottomless lakes on Meal Fuar-mhonaidh was certainly alive as early as the seventeenth century, when a Scottish divine by the name of James Fraser climbed the mountain to test the reputation of an even smaller lochan near the summit. According to the letter that Fraser subsequently addressed to the Royal Society in London, the lake he had travelled from Inverness to see was minuscule – “30 fathoms in length and six broad”, or 60 yards by 12 (55m x 11m). It was a strange place, though, for the lochan had no outlet, yet it never froze and always maintained a constant level. Fraser brought with him a line 600 feet long with which to plumb its depths, but “could find no bottom”. It’s not clear which body of water he was sounding – it may have been Loch a’ Chase (which is the closest lochan to the mountain’s summit, but does drain via one burn that flows into Loch Ness), or perhaps the nameless boghole to the east of Loch nan Oighreagan. which is the only lochan on the Ordnance Survey map of Meal Fuar-mhonaidh that has no outlet. What does seem astonishing is that Fraser, serious scientist though he was, failed to find a bottom despite deploying his “100 fathoms of small line” [The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society vol.2 p.322]. It’s certainly wildly improbable that either of the lochans Fraser may have visited has a depth of more than 20 or 30 feet; Murray surveyed neither of these minute bodies of water, but did sound Loch nam Breac Dearga and found it to be “not remarkable” in terms of depth – its deepest point was a mere 70ft (21.3m).

Walden Pond Thoreau
Walden Pond

No one has ever taken a census of all the “bottomless lakes” there are in the world, but the number must run to hundreds, if not thousands. There’s even an entire State Park – Bottomless Lakes State Park – based around nine deep limestone sinkholes in New Mexico. The tradition is not confined to English-speaking countries, either; when Michel Meurger and Claude Gagnon made their survey of lake folklore in Quebec, they discovered plenty of “bottomless lakes” in the French-speaking districts of Canada, including Lake Pohénégamook and Lake Maskinongé. There is a lake in Sweden by the name of Bottenlosen (‘the lake without a bottom’), and Mummelsee, in the Black Forest in Germany, was thought of by locals in much the same way. Tradition at Black Lake, in Bohemia, was that “a stone thrown here falls eternally.” [Meurger and Gagnon, Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross-Cultural Analysis (London, 1988) pp.129-30] Sometimes it seems that almost any dark body of water has been dubbed “bottomless” at some point in its history. The idea occurs not just at vast lakes such as Loch Ness (which was of indeterminate depth until Murray and his team firmly established its maximum as 754ft (230m) in 1903-04), but with regard to places that are nothing more than local ponds. A quick search reveals the existence of the likes of No Bottom Lake in Wisconsin, a little fishing hole a few hundred yards in circumference, and the even less substantial No Bottom Pond on the island of Nantucket. Henry David Thoreau, whose writings made Walden Pond in Connecticut famous around the world, found that the same tradition flourished in New England. “Many have believed,” he wrote,

that Walden reached quite through to the other side of the globe. Some who have lain flat on the ice for a long time, looking down through the illusive medium, perchance with watery eyes into the bargain, and driven to hasty conclusions by the fear of catching cold in their breasts, have seen vast holes “into which a load of hay might be drived,” if there were anybody to drive it, the undoubted source of the Styx and entrance to the Infernal Regions from these parts. Others have gone from the village with… a wagon load of inch rope, but yet have failed to find any bottom. [Walden, p.176]

To which, I think, one’s first response is, ‘Huh?’ I mean, I’ve seen smaller ponds than Walden, sure, but it’s a long way from being a lake, much less the sort of inky-watered cleft between vertiginous cliffs that you’d expect to give birth to the legend that its waters stretch down to the other side of the world. What sort of people could possibly look at this little local pool and come up with that sort of idea?

No Bottom Lake, Wisconsin
No Bottom Lake, WI

What we are seeing here, surely, is not tradition with any sort of basis in fact, but a sort of mythological indicator of the limits of geographical mobility a century or more ago. Most people simply didn’t travel much in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – nor in the nineteenth, at least until the introduction of the railway. It really wasn’t that uncommon to come across a farmer who had never ventured more than 15 or 20 miles from his home village. A “bottomless lake” a hundred or a thousand miles away meant little to such people. But there was still plenty of scope for local folklore, and men who had never gone far, or read much, or ever seen a body of water the size of Loch Ness or Lake Superior, were liable to apply the “bottomless” tag to the most inappropriate little splashes in their immediate neighbourhoods. There seems to be no reason to suppose they did so on the basis of any scientific evidence; indeed, the chances are that few of the unfathomable lakes or lochans in the world were ever properly plumbed at all, even by the likes of the Royal Society’s incompetent correspondent James Fraser. When Thoreau – who plainly possessed a pretty hard head to go with his romantic leanings – decided to solve the mystery of Walden Pond himself by deploying a cod-line and a stone, he had little trouble showing that it was precisely 102 feet deep. Thoreau, of course, was an outsider – he was born in Concord, MA – and had an outsider’s iconoclastic tendencies. The locals at Walden, and elsewhere, were no doubt happy enough to preserve the reputations of their “bottomless” lakes through inactivity, or even by discouraging investigation, for most such places would have yielded their secrets to the least determined searcher.  As the photo shows, global warming, or a hot summer, has cruelly exposed the claims of No Bottom Pond, which has dried up almost to nothing and cannot ever have been more than a few feet deep in the first place.

No Bottom Pond, Nantucket
No Bottom Pond, Nantucket – with most of the bottom all too plainly visible

Well, this is all very interesting, but what does it mean? I think, first of all, that it means that Michel Meurger was quite correct to identify the “bottomless lake” as one of the features of what he memorably terms the “mythological landscape” in which strange events are likely to occur – other such features include “dark water”, a tradition of “the lake that does not give up its drowned”, and tales of “terrified divers”, “sucking currents”, “underwater caverns” and underground connections between lakes [Meurger and Gagnon, op.cit. pp.128-45]. For Meurger, this folkloric cat’s cradle of traditions actively promotes the creation and dissemination of associated legends.

But I think the existence of hundreds of lakes said to have no bottoms means something else as well: it offers a clue to explain the existence of somewhere north of 300 lochs and lakes with their own monster traditions. For if – in a world, remember, in which most people did not travel much – every district had its own “unfathomable” lake, and its own dark waters that never yielded up their dead, it is really that surprising that most also had monsters, which sprang up and paddled about pretty much everywhere that there were lakes?

A ChInese prisoner is interrogated by a magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley's The Punishments of China (1901).

A Chinese prisoner – wearing the long pigtail, or queue, that was mandated for all indigenous subjects of the Celestial Empire – is interrogated by a Qing magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley’s voyeuristic classic The Punishments of China (1901).

China, in the middle of the eighteenth century, was the largest nation in the world – and also, by a distance, the most prosperous. Under the rule of a strong emperor, Hungli, and a well-established family (the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty), the Middle Kingdom was by then half-way through the longest period of calm in its long history. It had grown larger, richer and more cultured, its borders reaching roughly their modern extent. But it had also grown vastly more crowded; political stability, and the introduction of new crops from the Americas, led to a doubling of the population to around 300 million.  At its peak, this growth was accelerating at an annual rate in excess of 13%.

This meant trouble, for it meant that wealth was far from evenly distributed. China remained a country of great contrasts: its ruling classes rich beyond the dreams of avarice, its peasants scraping a bare living from the soil. For those living at the bottom of the  food chain – both metaphorically and literally – starvation was a constant possibility, one that grew ever more starkly real the further one travelled from the rich agricultural floodplains around the Yangtze River. By the late 1760s, many peasants were forced to turn to begging to survive, wandering miles from their homes to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers. Tens of thousands of such forced migrations led inevitably to conflict. They also led to one of the strangest outbreaks of panic and rumour known to history.

China under the Manchus, showing the growth of empire between 1644 and 1800. the soulstealing panic took place along the country's eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing.

China under the Manchus, showing the empire’s growth between 1644 and 1800. The soulstealing panic took place along the country’s eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing. Click to view in larger resolution.

Among the hundreds of victims of this panic was an itinerant beggar by the name of Chang-ssu, who came from  the province of Shantung. Chang-ssu travelled in company with his 11-year-old son, and between them the pair made an insecure living by singing a romantic folk song, ‘Lotus petals fall,’ to crowds of peasants whom they drummed up in their wanderings from village to village. By the end of July 1768, the two beggars had got as far as the gates of Hsu-chou, a city about 200 miles south of their home, when – at least according to Chang-ssu’s later confession – they were accosted by a tall man whom they did not know. The stranger asked them what they did for a living and, on hearing that they begged, he offered them employment – 500 cash for every peasant pigtail they could clip. (The cash was the imperial currency at the time; 500 cash was worth approximately half an ounce of silver.) The stranger refused to tell Chang-ssu and his son what he wanted the hair for, but he did offer them some help: a pair of scissors and a small packet of powder which, he explained, was a “stupefying drug.” Sprinkle the powder on the head of a victim and he would fall to the ground insensible. Then his pigtail – or queue – could easily be clipped.

The work sounded easy enough, and Chang-ssu accepted the commission – so he said. He and the stranger parted, making arrangements to meet up again later on the border with a neighbouring province, and father and son continued on their way, making for the city of Su-chou. In the course of their journey, at a village named Chao, they tried the stupefying powder on a local labourer. Gratifyingly, the man collapsed; Chang-ssu took out his scissors, snipped off the end of the man’s queue, and tucked scissors and the hair in his travelling pack. The beggars did not get far, however. Only a mile or two outside the village they were overtaken by a group of constables, arrested and hauled off to the county jail – suspected, they were told, of the vile crime of soulstealing.  Continue Reading »

An engraving–probably made from a contemporary artist’s sketch–shows the eight Haitian “voodoo” devotees found guilty in February 1864 of the murder and cannibalism of a 12-year-old child. From Harper’s Weekly

It was a Saturday, market day in Port-au-Prince, and the chance to meet friends, gossip and shop had drawn large crowds to the Haitian capital. Sophisticated, French-educated members of the urban ruling class crammed into the market square beside illiterate farmers, a generation removed from slavery, who had walked in from the surrounding villages for a rare day out.

The whole of the country had assembled, and it was for this reason that Fabre Geffrard had chosen February 13, 1864, as the date for eight high-profile executions. Haiti’s reformist president wished to make an example of these four men and four women: because they had been found guilty of a hideous crime—abducting, murdering and cannibalizing a 12-year-old girl. And also because they represented everything Geffrard hoped to leave behind him as he molded his country into a modern nation: the backwardness of its hinterlands, its African past and, above all, its folk religion.

President Fabre Geffrard, whose efforts to reform Haiti ended in disappointment when he was accused of corruption and forced to flee the country by a violent coup.

Call that religion what you will—voodoo, vaudaux, vandaux, vodou (the last of these is generally preferred today)—Haiti’s history had long been intertwined with it. It had arrived in slave ships centuries earlier and flourished in backwoods maroon villages and in plantations that Christian priests never visited. In 1791, it was generally believed, a secret vodou ceremony had provided the spark for the violent uprising that liberated the country from its French masters: the single example of a successful slave rebellion in the history of the New World.

Outside Haiti, though, vodou was perceived as primitive and sanguinary. It was nothing but “West African superstition [and] serpent worship,” wrote the British traveler Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard, who walked across the Haitian interior in 1899, and believers indulged in “their rites and their orgies with practical impunity.” For visiting Westerners of this sort, vodou’s popularity, in itself, was proof that the “black republic” could not claim to be civilized.
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In the cave of the witches

A photo sometimes said to depict members of Chiloé’s murderous society of warlocks—founded, so they claimed, in 1786 and destroyed by the great trial of 1880-81.

A photo sometimes said to depict members of Chiloé’s murderous society of warlocks—founded, so they claimed, in 1786 and destroyed by the great trial of 1880-81.

When the Sect needs a new Invunche, the Council of the Cave orders a Member to steal a boy child from six months to a year old. The Deformer, a permanent resident of the Cave, starts work at once. He disjoints the arms and legs and the hands and feet. Then begins the delicate task of altering the position of the head. Day after day, and for hours at a stretch, he twists the head with a tourniquet until it has rotated through an angle of 180, that is until the child can look straight down the line of its own vertebrae.

There remains one last operation, for which another specialist is needed. At full moon, the child is laid on a work-bench, lashed down with its head covered in a bag. The specialist cuts a deep incision under the right shoulder blade. Into the hole he inserts the right arm and sews up the wound with thread taken from the neck of a ewe. When it has healed the Invunche is complete.

The world’s last great witch trial took place as recently as 1880. It was held on the remote Chilean island of Chiloé, and featured remarkable allegations of mass murder, child mutilation and sorcery, all committed in the name of a strange sort of alternative government known as La Provincia Recta – ‘The Righteous Province’ – a sect of warlocks, based in a hidden cave and given to flying about the island wearing magical waistcoats stitched from the flayed skin of the recently deceased.

The native Chilotes believed these warlocks had real powers. Bruce Chatwin, in In Patagonia, wrote a memorable description of their rites and rituals. (And fans of Swamp Thing era Alan Moore will spot the source of one of his more disturbing plots.) But – truly unusual though the story is, was it ever rooted in reality? This week’s Smithsonian essay explores the evidence. But it’s not for the faint-hearted.

A plan of Baiae’s mysterious “Oracle of the Dead,” showing the complex layout of the tunnels and their depth below ground level.

In 1932, the entrance to a hitherto unknown tunnel was discovered in the ruins of the old Roman resort of Baiae, on the Bay of Naples. Packed with rubble, wreathed in choking gases, and heated to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit by nearby magma chambers, it was difficult and dangerous to excavate. But when, after 10 long years of work, the amateur team exploring it finally broke through to lower levels, they uncovered something truly remarkable: a complex, pre-dating the Romans, built around a boiling underwater stream that seemed to have been designed to ape a visit to the Greeks’ mythical underworld.

Who built the tunnels at Baiae – and for what purpose? When and why were they blocked up? And do the theories proposed by the discoverers really add up? This week’s Smithsonian essay weighs the evidence.

Walking to utopia

The Land of Cockaigne, in an engraving after a 1567 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Cockaigne was a peasant’s vision of paradise that tells us much about life in the medieval and early modern periods. A sure supply of rich food and plenty of rest were the chief aspirations of those who sang the praises of this idyllic land.

Men and women have always dreamed of paradise – and for many, in the years before the world was fully explored, it was somewhere that might have a physical existence in some distant corner of the earth. This week’s Smithsonian essay takes a look at what’s been said about an earthly arcadia, from the medieval Land of Cockaigne (a villein’s playground that offered a mirror image of life as it was led in this period, with plenty of rest, a ban on work, and food that literally threw itself into the mouths of inhabitants) to Russia’s much more spiritual peasant paradise, Belovode, the “Kingdom of White Waters.” More intriguingly, it tracks some of the many very real expeditions that set out over the years to locate these lands of dreams – and focuses on one especially remarkable myth in particular: widespread belief among the first Irish convicts who were transported to Australia that it was possible to walk from the penal colony near Sydney all the way to sanctuary China.

The Monster of Glamis

“If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret,” said Claude Bowes-Lyon, 13th Earl of Strathmore, “you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.”

That awful secret was once the talk of Europe. From perhaps the 1840s until 1905, the Earl’s ancestral seat at Glamis Castle, in the Scottish lowlands, was home to a “mystery of mysteries”—an enigma that involved a hidden room, a secret passage, solemn initiations, scandal, and shadowy figures glimpsed by night on castle battlements.

The conundrum engaged two generations of high society until, soon after 1900, the secret itself was lost. One version of the story holds that it was so terrible that the 13th Earl’s heir flatly refused to have it revealed to him. Yet the mystery of Glamis (pronounced “Glarms”) remains, kept alive by its association with royalty (the heir was grandfather to Elizabeth II) and by the fact that at least some members of the Bowes-Lyon family insisted it was real.

This celebrated historical mystery seems to be largely forgotten now, but as late as the 1970s it was chilling new generations as a staple of numerous ghost books. Come to think of it, paperback compilations of old ghost stories seem to have gone the way of the dodo as well, but those crumbly Armada books used to frighten me when I was young. Anyway, you can read the unexpurgated story over at Past Imperfect.

[This is a fully revised, expanded and updated account of a mystery first discussed here, featuring the fruits of much subsequent research.]

On September 14, 1224, a Saturday, Francis of Assisi—noted ascetic and holy man, future saint—was preparing to enter the second month of a retreat with a few close companions on Monte La Verna, overlooking the River Arno in Tuscany. Francis had spent the previous few weeks in prolonged contemplation of the suffering Jesus Christ on the cross, and he may well have been weak from protracted fasting. As he knelt to pray in the first light of dawn (notes the Fioretti—the ‘Little flowers of St Francis of Assisi,’ a collection of legends and stories about the saint),

he began to contemplate the Passion of Christ… and his fervor grew so strong within him that he became wholly transformed into Jesus through love and compassion…. While he was thus inflamed, he saw a seraph with six shining, fiery wings descend from heaven. This seraph drew near to St Francis in swift flight, so that he could see him clearly and recognize that he had the form of a man crucified… After a long period of secret converse, this mysterious vision faded, leaving… in his body a wonderful image and imprint of the Passion of Christ. For in the hands and feet of Saint Francis forthwith began to appear the marks of the nails in the same manner as he had seen them in the body of Jesus crucified.

In all, Francis found that he bore five marks: two on his palms and two on his feet, where the nails that fixed Christ to the cross were traditionally believed to have been hammered home, and the fifth on his side, where the Bible says Jesus had received a spear thrust from a Roman centurion.

Francis had been marked by the stigmata. But how? Had they been placed there by God? Or had the future saint inflicted the wounds on himself? Why are so many stigmatics women – and why are so few Protestants? The answers are revealing, and you can read more in this week’s Past Imperfect essay here.

The wizard of Mauritius

Port Louis, Mauritius, August 1782. The French Indian Ocean colony—highly vulnerable to British attack at the height of the American Revolutionary War—is in a state of alert. The governor, Viscomte François de Souillac, has been warned that a flotilla of 11 ships is approaching his island. Fearing that this is the long-awaited invasion fleet, De Souillac orders a sloop-of-war out to reconnoiter. But before the vessel can report, the panic ends. De Souillac is informed that the fleet has altered course and is now steering away from Mauritius. A few days later, when the sloop returns, the governor gets confirmation: the ships were actually East Indiamen, British merchant vessels making for Fort William in India.

All this is remarkable chiefly for the source of De Souillac’s intelligence. The governor had his information not from signals made by ships sailing far offshore, nor from land-based lookouts armed with high-powered telescopes, but from a minor member of the local engineering corps, one Étienne Bottineau. And Bottineau was chiefly renowned in Mauritius (or “Île de France,” to give it its contemporary French name) as a man who won a lot of bets in waterfront taverns thanks to his uncanny ability to foresee the arrival of ships that were anywhere from 350 to 700 miles from the island when he announced their approach.
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Inside the Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid–built for the Pharaoh Khufu in about 2570 B.C., sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and still arguably the most mysterious structure on the planet.

No structure in the world is more mysterious than the Great Pyramid. But who first broke into its well-guarded interior, and when? And what did they find there?

A reinvestigation of a neglected mystery. Old Arab accounts say that it was the Caliph Ma’mun who first broke into the Great Pyramid in 820 AD – driving a new tunnel into the north face of the monument and, by an astounding coincidence, striking the interior network of passages at precisely the point where the hidden upper network of tunnels leading to the King’s Chamber branches off from the main descending passage.

How credible is this story? Why has every writer on the pyramids since the mid-nineteenth century misdated Ma’mun’s visit to Giza by more than a decade? And what exactly is the lost source for some of the most remarkable of the details given in traditional accounts?

Fresh research in medieval Muslim chronicles provides at least some of the answers… and you can read the full story here.