World Bee Day

Did you know that honeybees can detect individual human faces?

Or that bees have been trained to sniff out explosives?

How about that a bee flaps its wings 230 times a second?

It was World Bee Day on 20 May, so as bee pollination accounts for about one in three mouthfuls of food that we eat as humans, raise a glass of mead to ‘the batteries of orchards’.

The birds of the muses

Gold plaques embossed with winged bee goddesses. Camiros, Rhodes. 7th century B.C. Via Wiki Commons.

Gold plaques embossed with winged bee goddesses. Camiros, Rhodes. 7th century B.C. Via Wiki Commons.

In one Ancient Egyptian ritual, it is said that bees were created from the tears of the sun-god Ra. They were associated with royalty and honey was used from paying taxes to temple rites where honey was placed into the mouths of statues. Amongst the grave goods in Tutankhamun’s tomb was a jar of 3,000 year old honey, which was still edible as honey never goes off!

Bees being associated with the gods was also common in Ancient India. The Hindu gods Vishnu, Krishnu and Indra were called Madhava, the nectar-born ones, and their symbol is the bee. There’s even a bee goddess, Bhrami, but in an unusual move, Kama, the god of love, carries a bow with a string made of bees.

In Greek mythology, Zeus was said to have made bees gold as a reward for feeding him honey as an infant hiding from his murderous father, Kronos, and the muses sent bees to bestow their favour on mortals, placing honey on the lips of those they wanted to give a sweet voice.

Too good to be true

The metallic coloured sweat bee Augochlorella aurata from the Rocky Mountains. Credit: USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory via Wiki Commons.

The metallic coloured sweat bee Augochlorella aurata from the Rocky Mountains. Credit: USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory via Wiki Commons.

Then, as now, honey is big business. Where honey used to be used to pay taxes, these days it is the centre of the health industry. You might have heard of manuka, made from the flowers of New Zealand’s manuka tree. When you could be paying $40 (£21) for a jar, is it stand-out in some way?

“It is the antibacterial component of manuka honey that is thought to set it apart from regular honey,” says a dietician in this HuffPost Australia article.

“However, there is limited evidence to suggest it is a much superior product. Also, it is important to note that not all manuka honeys are equal and it can be difficult to know what you’re getting.”

Unfortunately, with a big name comes a lot of fake honey. “There is something in the order of about ten times the amount of mānuka honey sold as there is produced,” said a researcher looking at fake honey, which found that one in five Australian honey brands were adulterated in some way.

One company was also prosecuted for adding synthetic chemicals into honey, including one used in fake tan, to make the distinctive colour and taste. It turns out that honey is the third most adulterated food in the world, behind milk and olive oil.

The most expensive honey in the world actually something called ‘Elvish’ honey from Turkey. You can’t actually buy it yourself – it was an accidental find from wild bees in a cave so only a limited amount exists – but a French laboratory spent 45,000 Euros for a kg.

Final facts

Not just black and gold – the Australian blue-banded bee Amegilla cingulata. This species builds a solitary nest rather than living in a hive. Credit: Chiswick Chap via Wiki Commons.

Not just black and gold – the Australian blue-banded bee Amegilla cingulata. This species builds a solitary nest rather than living in a hive. Credit: Chiswick Chap via Wiki Commons.

Ready for some final trivia?

There are 20,000 bee species, but only a few make honey. Most bees don’t dance either, and some don’t even sting. Of those that do, only the honeybee has a barbed sting, which eviscerates the bee when used, killing it. Half of bee species are solitary, not hive-making.

Queen bees were known as king bees even though people knew that they laid eggs. Aristotle apparently couldn’t compute the idea of a woman being in charge, so decided that it must be a king bee that runs the hive. It only changed to queen bee after the first comprehensive book on bee keeping was published by Charles Butler in 1609, called The Feminine Monarchie.

I’m also sad to report that vulture bees exist, feasting on rotting meat rather than flowers. It turns out that quite a number of bee species around the world feed on various animal secretions. You might of heard the story back in April where a woman in Taiwan was found to have miniscule sweat bees living under her eyelid, drinking her tears.

Bees have also been studied for emotional reactions, can do basic maths, have been known to smother predator insects to death, and honeybees dosed with cocaine are unsurprisingly overly enthusiastic and ‘twice as likely to dance’.

Finally, studying how bees search for food has been used to improve criminology models. Bees, it turns out, create a buffer zone around their hive where they do not feed, to reduce the risk of predators and parasites from locating their hive. Likewise, criminals are less likely to attack on their doorstep, in case they are recognised.


Witches’ marks – symbols of protection

"The Witch, No. 1" lithograph by Joseph E. Baker via Wiki Commons.

“The Witch, No. 1” lithograph by Joseph E. Baker via Wiki Commons. European witch trials hit a peak from 1560 to 1630, but declined to the point where the Witchcraft Act of 1735 made it a crime to accuse somebody else of being a witch.

The biggest concentration of witches’ marks, or symbols to ward off evil or misfortune, in the UK has been found in a limestone gorge on the Nottingham/Derbyshire border.

“Others are believed to be devices for capturing or trapping ‘evil’ and these include diagonal lines, boxes and mazes. The marks appear to have been added to over time and may indicate a need to strengthen the protection in response to a period of unexpected sickness, death or poor crops.”

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, adds: “Even two hundred years ago, the English countryside was a very different place, death and disease were everyday companions and evil forces could readily be imagined in the dark.  We can only speculate on what it was the people of Creswell feared might emerge from the underworld into these caves.”


Apotropaic marking, Niemelä Tenant Farm, now at Seurasaari Open Air Museum, Finland. Credit: Ethan Doyle White via Wiki Commons.

Apotropaic marking, Niemelä Tenant Farm, now at Seurasaari Open Air Museum, Finland. Credit: Ethan Doyle White via Wiki Commons.

Ritualistic protection marks are most commonly found in houses and churches, on door and window frames and on fireplaces where air could come in, and therefore witches, to ward off evil spirits. The Tower of London found 59 witch marks dating from 1540 to the early 18th century carved and burnt into the timber frame of the roof of Queen’s House back in 2015, along with a spiritual midden – “an assortment of domestic objects purposely hidden in a void next to one of the chimneys that included 46 animal bones, scraps of leather, a broken bladed tool, a broken spade shoe and a clay pipe”. As wooden houses were vulnerable to fire, it was a way to protect the household from pyromaniac witches roaming the streets.

Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon also has some, marked on a door that used to lead to the beer cellar.

Historic England actually asked the public on Halloween 2016 to look for witch marks themselves. It turns out that you don’t need to live in a mansion to find them, hundreds of people from around the country sent in photos of marks on ceilings and walls, and sometimes on furniture, most commonly of the hexafoil, or daisy wheel, which are concentric rings made with a compass. Is thought that these circles created a pattern with endless lines that were supposed to confuse and entrap evil spirits.

Other markings were made with a candle, either burning the wood or using the soot to mark protection signs.

Other protection

A 12th Century sheela na gig at a church in Kilpeck, Herefordshire. These grotesque carvings of women baring their vulva are thought to ward off death, evil and demons.

A 12th Century sheela na gig at a church in Kilpeck, Herefordshire. These grotesque carvings of women baring their vulva are thought to ward off death, evil and demons.

In addition to witches marks, other protective items have been found in houses, including horse skulls buried beneath floors in Ireland (though others think that they were placed there to enhance the acoustics of the dancefloor), shoes hidden behind walls and mummified cats (found both in house voids and in the thatching).

Hidden shoes are believed to trap an evil force that believes the shoe to be the person, as a shoe moulds itself to its wearer’s foot. There’s actually a concealed shoe index kept at Northampton Museum, with thousands found across the UK.

Witch bottles have also been found – filled with urine, heart shapes cut from felt, bent pins and nail clippings. These were buried beneath the hearth or near entrances to buildings.

“The idea of the witch bottle was to throw the spell back on the witch,” explains Alan Massey, a former chemist at the University of Loughborough, who investigated an unopened witch bottle dug up in Greenwich in 2004.

“The urine and the bulb of the bottle represented the waterworks of the witch, and the theory was that the nails and the bent pins would aggravate the witch when she passed water and torment her so badly that she would take the spell back off you.”

Maybe it’s best not to see what’s under your floorboards.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that this quote is wildly overused. Credit: Suzy Hazelwood via Flickr

Are you reading enough?

“There is no Frigate like a Book,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “To take us Lands away.”

Do you read enough? What is enough? What do you really like to read? Have you read the 1,000 books you need to read before you die, or at least the 49 books and novels that you need to read in your lifetime or the 27 must read books every novel lover should read at least once? I really hope you like Pride and Prejudice, because you’re going to be reading it a lot.

You'll be dead in 70 years! Go, go, go! Credit: Leandro H. Fernández via Flickr. CC license.

You’ll be dead in 70 years! Go, go, go! Credit: Leandro H. Fernández via Flickr.

This sort of listing of what you should or need to be reading seems to be a common concern. When I Googled “What books are people actually reading?”, out of 10 results on the first page, four were lists of varying lengths of books I ‘should’ have read. Two were forum queries asking whether people still read books and whether people actually enjoy reading classics. Others were articles variously telling me that science says books should be my priority (which ones? Mills & Boon publish 120 new titles a month and I’m a busy woman), lamenting that people don’t read, or declaring that what I do read, when I’m obviously busy not reading, can say a lot about my personality. Mine: thrilling.

As no one person can maintain such a constant level of thrillingness, on an idle afternoon I scanned down the list of 1,000 novels that apparently I need to read before I shuffle off this mortal coil, presumably old and very well read. Currently, at the grand age of 32, and if I’m a bit generous with books that I got at least half way through, I’ve read about 69. That’s a bit paltry isn’t it? Saying I love reading and then getting 69 out of 1,000 is like saying that you know Spanish because you once went to Barcelona for a long weekend. But, I saw Hamlet on stage with Cumberbatch in it, so that pretty much means I’ve read it, right? 70.

Sod off, I'm reading. "Lady reading a book" by Attilio Baccani. Credit: Plum leaves via Flickr.

Sod off, I’m reading. “Lady reading a book” by Attilio Baccani. Credit: Plum leaves via Flickr.

If, like me, you view reading books as something of a competitive sport, as soon as somebody turns up with a list of essential reading I immediately not only declare a position of “well, I’ve read loads of books, who are you to tell me what to read?” but also go and have a look to prove that of course I’ve read some of them anyway.

But why do I need to read anything? Does it make me a better person just because I’m trapped on a long commute every day and therefore have little else to do but read? Who decided that Catcher in the Rye will resound down the ages but hundreds of thousands of other books that I’d rather be reading will barely make a blip on the literary cannon?

My suspicion is that it doesn’t really matter what we read as long as it brings pleasure and that the wailing that nobody reads anymore is over exaggerated. In fairness to the guy who put together the list of 1,000 must-reads, he freely admits that “the question of what to read next has no definitive answer” and that the 1,000 he chose for his list “is neither comprehensive nor authoritative, but rather an invitation to a merry argument about the books left out as well as those included”. Well, he did include the Da Vinci Code.

Are you reading enough?

According to data from a few years ago, the country which reads the most is India, where the average person spends nearly 11 hours a week reading books. Thailand and China are in second and third place, with nine and a half and eight hours respectively, but the UK is far down the list with a measly 5.18 hours – an hour less than Australia at 6.18, and the US with 5.4.

There are all sorts of stats for different countries, and of course it can only give you a general overview. One study found that the ‘typical’ American has read just four books in the past year, but does that really matter? A lot of people feel that they ‘should’ read more than they are. But what’s the right number? 30 books a year? 80?

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” Credit: Boston Public Library via Flickr.

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” Or a cat wearing a bow. Credit: Boston Public Library via Flickr.

One study I found claimed that millennials are the generation most likely to lie about the number of books, or the kinds of books, they’ve read. One quarter of 18-24 year olds admitted to having lied about reading Lord of the Rings, when they had actually just watched the film.

But, LOTR is a really long book and if you’re not into fantasy fiction, what are you going to get out of slogging through it? Why are long books seen as more worthy? “Another damned, thick square book,” apparently said either the Duke of Cumberland or George III to Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Clocking in at 3,980 pages across six volumes, evidently the sight of a huge tome striking dismay into the heart of readers isn’t something new.

And despite this decrease in the average person’s reading book habits, average book length actually increased by 25% between 1999 and 2014, from 320 pages to 400. The theory is that the rise of digital books means that people are less intimidated by large books as a file on an e-reader and they don’t have to physically carry the weight around.

Also, says literary agent Clare Alexander in The Guardian: “Despite all the talk of the death of the book because of competition from other media, people who love to read appear to prefer a long and immersive narrative, the very opposite of a sound bite or snippets of information that we all spend our lives downloading from Google.”

So, fewer people are reading books because there are so many other pass times out there vying for our attention, but those who do are going for longer stories as a reaction against the digital age we have entered.

One of many


Start on the left and keep going. You’ll hit Pride and Prejudice eventually. Credit:

You could argue that people aren’t reading less in their day-to-day lives, they’re just reading fewer books.

People do actually read a lot every day, as a large percentage of the workforce is now on computers. I’ve worked in several publishing companies over the years and it’s not infrequent for me to ask a colleague what they happen to be reading at the moment and for them to say that because they spend all day reading, they don’t want to do more in their leisure time. And these are people who like language enough to be involved in printing words.

In fact, we could be reading more content now than ever before – but online not a book. One study found that newspaper homepages have an average of 450 links on them. There are actually so many words and stories we’re exposed to, it can lead to ‘content fatigue’ where there’s so much information we don’t know where to go.

“It is a fascinating fact is that if you go online and visit 200 web pages in one day – which is a simple task when you could email, blogs, YouTube, etc. – you’ll see on average 490,000 words; War & Peace was only 460,000 words,” pointed out one study’s author.

And this worrying about a decline in book reading is nothing new, despite the fact, as the writer of this article in Psychology Today points out: “The easy availability of leisure reading books is a pretty recent thing.”


13th century Dominican church converted into a bookstore in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Credit: Sb2s3, via Wiki Commons.

“We’re too busy working or working out or playing or – OK, let’s admit it – watching TV,” bemoaned Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York University, back in 1991 in an article for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, called  ‘The Death of Reading’.

“Our homes barely make room for reading,” he continues. “Those old islands of quiet – libraries, studies and dens – long ago were invaded by flat screens and Nintendos [remember – 1991]. Now they are called ‘family rooms’ or, more accurately, ‘television rooms’. And our architects seem to have given up providing us with bookshelves; instead they busy themselves designing ‘entertainment centers’.”

Yet, even Mitchell Stephens was behind the times. Go back to 1914 and an article in The Times blamed a range of causes on the decline in reading recorded at the turn of the century, including “the diminutive size of the typical modern apartment” and “the attractions of golf playing, motoring and ‘the movies’”.

This is all a bit harsh you may think, especially when last year’s ‘Super Thursday’ – an attempt by The Bookseller to jump on the Black Friday/Cyber Monday bandwagon – saw 544 books released in the UK on the one day. The best-seller of last year, Michelle Obama’s autobiography Becoming has sold almost 10 million copies and book sales are increasing year on year, with significant growth for juvenile non-fiction in particular, so clearly not all Millennials are too busy on their Nintendo or playing golf to read a book.

The growth of audiobooks in particular muddies the waters if you’re only going to look at people reading a book as opposed to listening to them. Audiobook sales increased 22.7% in 2017 compared to the previous year. 73% of listeners used a smartphone to listen to audiobooks at some point in the year and 47% of listeners chose a smartphone as their listening device on a regular basis, up from 29% in 2017.

What are people reading?

Short, but profound. Credit: duncan c via Fickr.

Short, but profound. Credit: duncan c via Fickr.

However you read though, what is it you’re reading? What makes you miss your stop or keep the light on late into the night? Are people led by what literary prizes have decided are good or do people have a more pot-luck approach and go where the wind takes them?

I looked at the top 10 Amazon bestsellers for 2018 and three were autobiographies
/biographies (Michelle Obama’s and two on Trump), three were children’s books (including, strangely, one of Trump quotes) three were self help guides and one was a recipe book. You have to go down to number 24 for the first adult fiction book, Crazy Rich Asians. If you look at audiobook sales however, there’s more literary fiction in the top 10 and, understandably if the point is for reading practice, no children’s books, which brings up some interesting trends around how people are consuming books and the different demographics.

Since 2013, print nonfiction has been outstripping print fiction sales, bringing in nearly $2 billion more in revenue in 2017. The ‘Trump Bump’ of people having significant interest in Trump-related books seems to be driving growth in nonfiction. Fiction sales meanwhile have been dropping, falling 16% between 2013 and 2017. Why?

This Forbes article puts forward that it’s just more difficult to get new books into people’s awareness as fiction depends more on browsers of books, and physical book shops are declining. With name recognition a key factor in which books are being bought, and cheap Kindle deals driving sales, it’s more difficult to support new authors.

After familiarity with a name, reading a sample of a book beforehand was the second most common reason given in this study of Canadian readers as to why they read a particular book. Third was familiarity with the series, followed by cover design and badges and stickers.

Man Booker winner Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. A 'true reading experience' or 'like coming across a splendid cake with a most uninspiring taste'? Credit: Lance Catedral via Flickr.

Man Booker winner Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. A ‘true reading experience’ or ‘like coming across a splendid cake with a most uninspiring taste’? Credit: Lance Catedral via Flickr.

Does a sticker highlighting that something won the Booker Prize make a book more desirable then? Well, actually, it could have a negative effect. In a comparison of Goodreads reviews of prize winning books and non-prize winners, it was found that “winning a prestigious prize in the literary world seems to go hand-in-hand with a particularly sharp reduction in ratings of perceived quality”.

“The issue here is that readers assume that a book is ‘good’ because it won an award, but what is ‘good’ is partly a matter of individual taste. And the reader’s taste may not match up with the taste of the critics and others on judging committees who selected the prize-winner,” says study author Amanda Sharkey. “As a result, readers who read prize-winning books tend to be disappointed – not because prize-winning books are bad nor even simply because they have higher expectations for prize-winning books – but rather because many readers who are drawn in by prize-winning books tend to have tastes that are simply not predisposed to liking the types of books that win prizes.”

“The itch people have for addictive story telling has been scratched to a large degree by TV series binge watching instead of books in recent years,” is another theory put forward. However, this could just be a phase and the next 50 Shades could just be over the horizon.

Or, more possibly, the next Girl on the Train as in 2017 crime became the UK’s most popular adult fiction genre.

“When times are stressful and it looks like the bad is winning out over the good, along comes the genre of crime novels to put the balance back in life,” suggests thriller writer David Baldacci as to why interest in crime has grown.

“People inherently don’t like folks who do bad to get away with it. In real life they do, all the time, because of a variety of factors. But in novels, evil is punished, and the good guys mostly win, after solving the puzzle. And all is right with the world. At least fictionally.”

157 books I need to read in the next six months here I come!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that this quote is wildly overused. Credit: Suzy Hazelwood via Flickr

It is a truth universally acknowledged that this quote is wildly overused. Credit: Suzy Hazelwood via Flickr

So what have I learnt? That despite media reports that we’re descending into illiterate morons who can barely pick up a piece of paper, book publishing is actually alive and well. People like books, people like big books, people who create lists of books bloody love Pride and Prejudice even though Jane Eyre is far more interesting, and people are continuing to read even in the face of the dreaded combination of games consoles and the internet.

Maybe fewer people are reading for leisure on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged in other entertainment that provides the same benefits of relaxation, pleasure and learning.

“Maybe what matters is stories for leisure, not reading for leisure,” theorised Peter Toohey in his Psychology Today article. “And perhaps it doesn’t much matter what way you get them. When you come to think of it, the mass market printing of books and of glossy magazine is something that really didn’t take off until as recently as after the Second World War.”

Whether you’re blazing through a hundred books a year or two, at the end of the day, does it matter as long as you enjoyed them?




Deviant burials and vampire myths

With Halloween in the air and me comfortably ensconced in the third season of Buffy, I thought a quick flit through vampire mythology would be apt. As it turns out, ideas around blood sucking demons of one kind or another are widespread across nearly all cultures. And the how and why of people coming back from the dead were so varied it’s a miracle anybody stayed in the ground at all.

Stones, spikes and decapitation

In 1987 this skeleton was dug up in Sanok, southern Poland. The head had been removed and placed between the legs. By R. Biskupski, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia Commons.

In 1987 this skeleton was dug up in Sanok, southern Poland. The head had been removed and placed between the legs. By R. Biskupski, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia Commons.

You may have come across a news story recently where the skeleton of a child buried with a stone in its mouth was dug up in the disturbingly named Cemetery of the Babies in central Italy.

The researchers who found the skeleton say it was a ten-year-old who probably died during a malaria outbreak that swept through the Umbria area in the mid-5th century. The stone in the mouth, they guess, was a way of containing the disease within the body and stopping the child from rising from the grave and spreading it further.

In previous digs at the cemetery, items such as raven talons, toad bones, bronze cauldrons filled with ash and the remains of sacrificed puppies (!) were found alongside bones. One skeleton of a three-year-old girl had stones weighing down her hands and feet to keep her in her grave.

‘We know that the Romans were very much concerned with this and would even go to the extent of employing witchcraft to keep the evil — whatever is contaminating the body — from coming out,’ says David Soren, a professor from the University of Arizona, who is involved in the dig. However, regarding the stone in the boy’s mouth, he said: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s extremely eerie and weird.’

Weird indeed, but not unprecedented. There have been cases of ‘vampire graves’, or more accurately, ‘deviant burials’, found all over the place.

Several years ago in Poland, road construction workers unearthed four skeletons that had been buried with their heads between their legs. Other remains elsewhere were found with iron sickles across their throats, bars placed on the grave, the tongue removed and replaced with a stone, or iron spikes hammered through the heart, shoulders, pelvis and ankles. There is even a ‘vampire graveyard’ in Celakovice, Czech Republic where over a dozen skeletons from the 11th century had not only been pierced with spikes, but decapitated and their heads turned face-down.

Back from the grave

Lithograph by R. de Moraine from 1864 showing townsfolk burning the exhumed skeleton of an alleged vampire

Lithograph by R. de Moraine from 1864 showing townsfolk burning the exhumed skeleton of an alleged vampire

To say that these are the remains of ‘vampires’ however is to put a more modern word on burials going back a thousand years.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word ‘vampire’ is from the mid-18th century and could either be old French, or from the Hungarian word ‘vampir’, or from the Turkish word ‘uber’ meaning witch. (An interesting side fact is that in a theatre, a certain type of small spring trapdoor used for sudden disappearances from a stage is also called a vampire. Apparently, it was invented for James Planché’s 1820 adaption of Polidori’s The Vampyr as the two doors that spring back into place give the impression a figure is passing through solid matter.)

A ‘deviant’ burial is one that deviates from the norm, but isn’t necessarily the mark of a vampire epidemic. Deviant burials lack grave goods or the body itself is placed in an unusual way. This covers everything from mass burial pits to criminals being carelessly flung into a shallow grave outside of consecrated ground, so I’m going to focus more closely on clear attempts to stop the dead from digging their way back out. Grab a stake, we’re going in!

Superstition and fear

Vlad the Impaler

Vlad the Impaler, who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Via Wikipedia Commons.

With Bram Stoker’s Dracula published in 1897, the idea of what vampires are has been cemented in popular culture. The flappy cloak, ability to shapeshift and a specific interest in English real estate is the distilled result of many European superstitions across different countries going back centuries. The belief that the dead may return was widespread and enduring and there could be a wide number of reasons why your loved one didn’t stay where they were put.

Ancient Greeks believed that dead bodies could rise as revenants; returning to exact punishment for a previous crime or that spirits of the dead could be compelled to appear through necromancy. Bodies were actually being pinned down with millstones as far back as 4500–3900/3800 BCE.

There were also vampires in Greek mythology. Famous for his wandering eye, Zeus fathered several children with the queen of Libya, called Lamia. Hera, his wife, obviously took exception to this and took the queen’s children away. Hera also cursed her with sleeplessness, but Zeus kindly gave her the ability to remove her own eyes. Lamia ended up wandering the world and drinking the blood of young children, her name eventually being given to the lamiae – female creatures with serpent-like bodies.

Later on in Romania, a strega (female) or stregone (male) was a vampiric witch, who would shapeshift or ride a flying goat to drink people’s blood. The Albanian variation of shtriga turned into a flying insect after feeding and resulted from a woman being infertile or her children being killed. The Polish version of strzyga meanwhile was believed to be the result of a person being born with two souls, so when one dies, the other still lives and has to drink blood and eat entrails to survive.

Promotion shot of Max Schreck as Count Orlok. Bram Stoker’s heirs sued and all but one promo copy of the film were destroyed. By F. W. Murnau, Henrik Galeen and Fritz Arno Wagner.

Promotion shot of Max Schreck as Count Orlok. On Nosferatu’s release, Bram Stoker’s heirs sued and all but one promo copy of the film were destroyed. By F. W. Murnau, Henrik Galeen and Fritz Arno Wagner.

A nosferatu however, which was the name of the first vampire on film, 1922’s Nosferatu, is actually a certain kind of Romanian vampire that is the illegitimate child of illegitimately born parents. Other variations include the Russian upyr or Polish upior, which unusually attack between noon and midnight, and the Mexican psychic vampire tlahuelpuchi that could transform and feed off psychic energy.

In Norse mythology, draugar are more zombie-like undead, rotting but supernaturally strong and jealous of their grave goods, which anybody who has played Skyrim will be acutely aware. One superstition was that a dead body had to be blindfolded and spun around three times to disorientate them so they could not find their way home from the burial mound.

Other myths include vampiric fairies in Gaelic mythology, demons, or in the case of the Aztec cihuateteo, the malevolent spirits of women who died in childbirth. Some vampires didn’t leave their graves, and instead moved around underground, eating other corpses. In 1679 a theologian called Philip Rorh actually wrote a 24-page treatise called Masticatione Mortuorum or ‘The Chewing of the Dead’, that discusses the tradition that developed of sewing coins into a corpse’s mouth so they would chew on those instead.

Other vampiric myths

If you think we have some scary vampires in Europe, they are nothing on what Asian folklore has in store.

In north India, a brahmarākshasa is a demonic evil spirit that either committed evil deeds in life or misused their knowledge for ill, and is usually depicted with their head enveloped in intestines. A bhoot meanwhile is a restless spirit that likes to immerse itself in milk, and you can spot one pretending to be a human as their feet face backwards.


Artist’s impression of a manananggal. By Gian Bernal, from Wikimedia Commons.

In the Philippines, a mandurugo is a beautiful girl during the day, but at night grows wings and a long proboscis-like tongue that she uses to suck the foetuses out of pregnant women or drink from men’s necks. A manananggal or ‘self segmenter’ is an old woman who can detach the top of her winged body and also preys on sleeping pregnant women, consuming the foetus and drinking their blood. If you are unfortunate enough to have half a floating woman terrorising your local pregnant population, a way to stop her is by sprinkling salt or garlic on the unattended lower half, preventing the two bits from rejoining.


Sketch of an aswang, a Philipino shapeshifting vampiric spirit. By H.M.Bec (CC BY-SA 4.0) from Wikimedia Commons.

In Malaysia a similar variation is the penanggal, again a female demon that attacks pregnant women, but this one detaches its head and somehow flies through the air, dangling its entrails and stomach beneath it. Onion and garlic is said to ward off the demon, whilst some people tied thistle to the window frame or door so the penanggal’s intestines would get ensnared and trap them until morning. If you’re lacking for something to occupy your weekend, you could also find the body bit and pour broken glass in the neck, stopping the head from rejoining it.

In China, rather than a demon, a vampire known as chiang-shi was created when a person died in a violent way. Unable to rest, it would attack and tear apart their victim before flying away.

More famous due to later depictions in cartoons and films, the jiang-shi, also known as a Chinese ‘hopping’ vampire, actually translates as ‘stiff corpse’. They always wear the uniform of a Qing Dynasty official and are more of a jumping zombie than vampire, but are repelled by similar things to Western vampires such as mirrors and the call of a rooster, as well as the hooves of a black donkey, the blood of a black dog and the wood of the peach tree. The result of improper burial, magical rituals, suicide or possession, they supposedly originate from an alternative way for cash-poor relatives to return their loved ones home. Rather than pay for the body to be transported, they would instead pay a ‘corpse driver’ to magically bind the wrists, ankles and knees and then force the cadaver to hop home. In reality, the bodies were bound on bamboo poles and carried home, with the bouncing of the poles making it look as though the bodies were walking. Apparently, the way to stop a jiang-shi from chasing you is to throw a handful of rice on the ground and they will stop to count the grains.

Yuki-onna (雪女, the snow woman). By Sawaki Suushi via Wikimedia Commons.

Yuki-onna (雪女, the snow woman). By Sawaki Suushi via Wikimedia Commons.

Japan, a country with folklore including The Lady of the Snow, who appears during snowstorms and can cripple you with a glance before sucking your life out through your mouth, surprisingly doesn’t have a history of human blood drinkers. The only bloodsucking creature is the kappa, which lives in water, attacks animals and sometimes gets paraded before magical children.

Moving down to Australia, the Aboriginal yara-ma-yha-who is a short creature that lives in fig trees and jumps out to land on their victim and suck their blood out through suction pads on their fingers.

In African folklore, vampires tend to be bloodsucking witches, but they also have a creature that hides in trees, the asasabonsam, that has iron teeth.

Why people thought vampires existed

The reasons why a person would rise from their grave are as equally widespread. It could have been something to do with how they died, so dying young or before marriage, having a violent death, plague or committing suicide. Or, it could be the result of the person being difficult, unpopular, disfigured or otherwise cursed in life. For example, an old Romanian belief is that the seventh child will always become a revenant, whilst being born with a caul (membrane on the head), split lip or third nipple also indicates your unfortunate destiny to return once dead. Being left unburied or not being buried deep enough could also lead to the dead returning through neglect by the living.

Engraving of occultists John Dee and Edward Kelley

Engraving of occultists John Dee and Edward Kelley “in the act of invoking the spirit of a deceased person”; from Astrology (1806) by Ebenezer Sibly. Via Wikimedia Commons

Necromancy was also widely believed, originating from the Ancient Greek for dead or corpse and divination, but harking back to even earlier, with evidence from as far back as 7500BC of the dead being buried under houses and the skulls sometimes plastered and kept within the house, possibly as a way to connect the living and the dead. In Ancient Greece necromancy was used to contact or conjure up a dead person’s soul to question them or do the necromancer’s bidding. Odysseus for example does this in the Odyssey, questioning spirits to determine how to reach the Halls of Hades. Later, this idea of divining the future through the use of spirits was superseded with the idea of raising the physical corpse. As Christianity had become widespread in Europe by the Middle Ages, the raising of the dead was solely the domain of God, and necromancy was therefore ‘the Devil’s magic’, leading to well-known magicians such as the Elizabethan John Dee.

From a more scientific point of view, it is thought that the idea of vampirism in particular arose from the effects of disease, poor medical knowledge and isolated communities steeped in superstition.

Satirical cartoon from the Boston Daily Globe accompanying an article describing superstitious beliefs in rural Rhode Island. Boston Daily Globe, via Wikipedia Commons.

Satirical cartoon from the Boston Daily Globe accompanying an article describing superstitious beliefs in rural Rhode Island. Boston Daily Globe, via Wikipedia Commons.

In 1990 in Griswold, Connecticut a burial ground from the early 1800s revealed a stone coffin within which the skeleton had been rearranged so the decapitated head and crossed thigh bones sat on top of the ribs. Investigation of the grave revealed that five years after the body had been buried, it had been dug up again and rearranged, and the coffin smashed. Later, this desecration was linked to vampire panics in New Hampshire, which were linked to serious TB outbreaks. As people died, wasting away and coughing up blood, later deaths were thought to be the result of their vampirism, leading people to break open their coffins and staking them, turning the body face down or removing heads and other bones. In some cases hearts were removed, burned and the ashes fed to a living relative to try and protect them.

Cholera epidemics have also been suggested as a possible reason for other deviant burials. In the Polish burials where sickles were placed across the neck or stones on the throat coincide with widespread cholera epidemics. Natural decomposition could also be a reason, with fluids leaking from the body leading to blood on the lips and flushed cheeks, or escaping gas creating a ‘scream’ if the body is staked. Natural bacterial decomposition around the mouth can also lead to the appearance that the shroud has been eaten away.

The genetic disease porphyrias may also have contributed to the vampire myth. A collection of eight blood disorders that affect a person’s ability to create heme, a component of hemeoglobin in the blood, it leads to light sensitivity and painful blisters from sunlight.

Search and destroy

Cover, The Tomb of Dracula #40, Marvel Comics, Jan. 1976, cover art by Gene Colan & Frank Giacoia

Cover, The Tomb of Dracula #40, Marvel Comics, Jan. 1976, cover art by Gene Colan & Frank Giacoia.

If there is a vampire on the loose, how do you find and protect yourself from it? In Romanian folklore, you need to dress a seven-year-old boy in white and put him on a white horse. At midday, lead them into a graveyard and wherever the horse stops indicated where the vampire is buried. In Kosovo, you would need a twin brother and sister born on a Saturday who wear their clothes inside out as only they can see it.

If you’re fresh out of twins or white horses, garlic is one of the most popular ways to repel a vampire, and could have come from how rabies sufferers react to the smell. The snarling and biting led to a link with vampirism, and the resulting heightened sense of smell from the disease makes the infected particularly sensitive to garlic. Rabies also leads to facial and vocal convulsions when triggered by visual stimuli, possibly leading to the belief that vampires hate mirrors as an infected person would recoil from their own reflection.

The use of wooden stakes to kill a vampire is widespread, though the mouth was targeted in Russia and northern Germany, and the stomach in north-eastern Serbia. This was supposed to drain the blood-bloated corpse to kill them. Other methods used include pouring boiling water on the grave, sticking a lemon in the corpse’s mouth, or, to absolutely make sure, just burn everything.

So, now you are fully prepared for any undead disturbances, grab yourself a vampire killing kit and a water pistol of holy water, maybe strap on some thistles, hang the hoof of a black goat around your neck and carry a lemon to be on the safe side, and go forth to check if great aunt Mildred is still where she should be…

If you enjoyed this article on deviant burials and vampire myths, check out another of my articles on how Halloween celebrations have evolved from pagan fear of fairies, through love divination via the medium of molten lead to megabucks spending spree!

First Of The Summer Wine

Drink Drive

“Fermentation and civilisation are inseparable.” — John Ciardi

As a rule, I loathe clichés. I find the obvious to be tedious and the common inane.  And yet, there are some tropes that pervade our culture so deeply that they are inescapable. Boy meets girl, the dishonest politician and Italian food and wine. I hope we can all see which one I’ll be guilty of today.

Staying consistent with aversion to all things predictable, I steered well clear of Rome for my first visit to Italy. Instead, I braved the rugged hills of Tuscany. Where the tenacious olive groves roam and the elusive balsamic vinegar is said to live.

0001 A harsh and unforgiving beauty

Silliness aside, my arrival in and around Florence was timed to be just after the chill of winter had been driven out. It had been far too long since I could bask in the dry heat of properly…

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Origins of Halloween – pumpkins, demons and love matches


Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse, 1886. From the Tate collection.

It’s October, and everything’s orange and has bats on it. As with many things, I thought I knew all about Halloween – used to be a pagan holiday, was co-opted by the Catholic church into All Hallows’ Eve and now is a roving nightmare of rubber masks and German heavy metal. But what actually is All Hallows’ Eve and why are there people at my front door?! I’m watching Vikings, I don’t have time for this pagan nonsense!

Before we get into all that, let’s head back to the original Celtic festival of Samhain, held at the end of October or beginning of November to mark the arrival of winter. In old Irish mythology, this was a time of gathering tribes, feasting and games.

Bonfires were lit on hilltops, possibly as a cleansing ritual with people jumping over them or driving cattle between them. In some places the hearth in houses was left to die down and then relit using a brand from a communal bonfire.

It was also believed that this was when a doorway to the Otherworld opened and allowed the souls of the dead to pass across into this world. There are also stories of fairy mounds opening to allow the Sidhe (think of the fairies in a Midsummer Night’s Dream – more nature spirits or gods than Tinkerbell) or other great forces of nature or darkness to pass through, sometimes requiring a sacrifice to appease them. Trick or treating may have derived from the belief that fairies would disguise themselves as beggars and ask for food, and punish those who refused to share.

People dressed up as animals or wore animal skulls and made noise to scare spirits away. It was also a good time of year for magic and divination, with one example I found of telling fortunes by throwing marked stones into a bonfire. If your stone couldn’t be found again afterwards, it was believed that you would die the following year.

Influence of the Roman Empire

In a massive example of oversimplification, the Roman Empire ruled what is now England and Wales from 43AD to 410AD and brought with them their own festivals. Some think that Feralia, the feast day held at the end of a nine-day festival of the dead, was an influence on the modern Halloween as this was when evil spirits were sent away to the spirit world for another year. Failure to perform the rites correctly could leave these spirits remaining as ghosts.


Snap-Apple Night, painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833.

Apple bobbing is also thought to stem from this merging of Celtic and Roman beliefs. For the Celts, apples were used in divination and tied to evergreen branches. For Romans, the apple was the symbol of Pomona, the goddess of orchards. It is thought apple bobbing then developed as a way of divining love matches. One tale is that if a girl put the apple she had bobbed underneath her pillow she would dream of her future soul mate. However, how she managed to sleep whilst balanced on top of an apple isn’t explained. Another game from which bobbing might have developed is snap-apple where a stick has an apple tied on one end and a lit candle on the other. This is suspended from the ceiling and spun, so the game is to bite the apple and not get a face-full of candle. This is a great excerpt from a newspaper describing the game in 1850:

See that strong, young fellow: he is the best man in the country round at throwing the sledge, and yet he cannot for the life of him catch the apple from the cross though his great jaws open wide enough to encompass a pumpkin. There he goes again with a dash as if it were made of granite, but the apple has turned only the faster from him, and the avenging candle comes swift upon him, covering his chops with grease and smut, and singeing his whiskers, and so he retired from the vain pursuit, for the laugh is loud against him.

Just to show, you might be able to toss your sledge around, but it doesn’t mean you can escape the wrath of a candle spinning on a stick.

Christianity and All Hallows’ Eve

All Saint’s Day was a celebration of the saints held originally in May, Hallow being another name for a holy person, but this was officially moved to 1 November after a request by Pope Gregory VI. The day before therefore became All Hallows’ Eve and the day after, All Souls’ Day. This three day period was to remember the dead, with All Souls’ Day reserved for praying for those in purgatory. From the medieval period onwards, the poor went from house to house offering to pray for departed loved ones, in return for food. These were known as ‘soulers’ and were given spiced soul cakes, and could be another origin of trick or treating.

The word Halloween as a shortening of All Hallow’s Eve is said to have formed as far back as the 15th Century, and the Christian influence changed the old Celtic traditions of fairies into stories about the Devil and witches. One story is that people who had died with unfinished business could come back on that night, so people disguised themselves as a way of tricking the ghost. However, outside of the Celtic areas the holiday wasn’t particularly celebrated beyond fortune telling games using apples or nuts, instead being superseded in Protestant England by Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night on 5 November, remembering the Gunpower Plot of 1605.

Whilst Queen Victoria presided over a torch lit procession and effigy burning at Balmoral in 1876, for more modest households the matchmaking side of Halloween apparently continued to dominate in the Victorian era, with a lot of party games revolving around finding out the initial or character of the man a young lady would marry. One such parlour game involved the pouring of molten lead through the handle of a key into a pan of water, with the shape of the dribbled lead forming signs as to who they may be. Another was to eat an apple whilst looking in a mirror, and you may see the reflection of your intended, though in true Victorian disdain for health and safety or practical common sense, a variation was to look in the mirror whilst walking backwards down the cellar steps.

Current Halloween traditions


A turnip Jack-O’-Lantern. By Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

During the 1880s whilst the English were busy staring into mirrors, Scottish and Irish emigrants took their traditions with them across the Atlantic. One such tradition was the carving of Jack-O-Lanterns.

Originally turnips were used, with one idea being that this came from the story of Stingy Jack who invited the Devil to drink with him, but didn’t want to pay for the drink. He tricked the Devil to turn himself into a coin, and then kept the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross to trap him in that form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, with the promise that Jack would be left alone for a year and that the Devil would not get his soul when he died. After a year had gone the Devil appeared, but once again Jack tricked him into climbing a tree and picking a piece of fruit. Once the Devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross on the trunk and extracted another promise from the Devil that he wouldn’t come after Jack for another ten years. After Jack died, God refused him entry into heaven and the Devil couldn’t take his soul, so instead condemned Jack to walk the Earth with a burning coal. Jack put the coal inside a hollowed-out turnip and roams at night, so people scared him off by carving faces into potatoes and turnips and placing them in windows or near doors.


Van Gogh’s Starry Night carved into a pumpkin by the Maniac Pumpkin Carvers. Credit: MARC EVAN/AP PHOTO/MANIAC PUMPKIN CARVERS.

As anybody who has tried to cut up a turnip knows, they’re a pain in the arse, so when they reached America after escaping the potato famine and came across pumpkins, which were more plentiful and easier to carve, the tradition evolved into carving this fruit instead.

Trick or treating also became a more widespread concept in America, albeit later on in the early 1900s. Thought to have developed from the Celtic traditions of dressing as demons to hide from spirits crossing over and the poor begging for soul cakes, the first reference to ‘trick or treat’ was in 1927 in the Alberta Canada Herald, which reported youths going around houses and demanding treats. It seems to have taken a while to become mainstream however, with ‘A Mother’ writing a letter to The Fresno Bee in 1941 saying:

As a mother of two children I wish to register indignation at the “trick or treat” racket imposed on residents on Hallowe’en night by the youngsters of this city.… This is pure and simple blackmail and it is a sad state of affairs when parents encourage their youngsters to participate in events of this kind.

In the intervening years however, Halloween has become a huge holiday in the US. Last year it was estimated that Americans spent $8.4 billion on the celebration, expected to increase to $9.1 million this year. The UK has taken longer to warm to the idea, with a 2013 YouGov survey showing that 70% of responders would prefer it if trick or treaters didn’t come to their house, but spending is increasing (£310 million last year) and 40% of people now say that they would be celebrating Halloween.

One final cautionary note though if you are trick or treating this year; you might not always get what you expect. One woman in Long Island was convicted in 1964 of giving out packages of ant poison, steel wool and dog biscuits to children she thought were too old to beg for sweets. Maybe stick to dressing up your dog as a pumpkin instead.