Monday, 30 June 2014

"The Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves." - The Beast of Gévaudan

30 June 1764: The 14-year-old Jeanne Boulet became the first victim of the Beast of Gévaudan, one or several creatures that went on a killing spree over the next three years in the Auvergne in France, claiming between 80 – 100 victims.

“For this was the land of the ever-memorable Beast, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves. What a career was his! He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivarais; he ate women and children and "shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty"; he pursued armed horsemen; he has been seen at broad noonday chasing a post-chaise and outrider along the king's high-road, and chaise and outrider fleeing before him at the gallop. He was placarded like a political offender, and ten thousand francs were offered for his head. And yet, when he was shot and sent to Versailles, behold! a common wolf, and even small for that.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Contemporary Illustration of the Beast of Gévaudan

The killings in the Languedoc-Roussillon region were very real. No one doubted that. And after more children were attacked, earlier case of brutal assaults on children were blamed on the beast. Over the next three years, between 80 and 100 women and children were killed while men were usually evaded, especially armed men. The church was quick to capitalise on the terror that the creature spread in the days when the Age of Enlightenment took more and more of the flock away from the true Catholic faith. The Bishop of Mende, quoting the Deuteronomy: “I will also send the teeth of beasts upon them“ in his in his consolatory pastoral letters and interpreting the tragic occurrences as God’s judgement on those whose faith was weak, while King Louis XV sent the army to tackle the beast, 57 dragoons under Capitaine Duhamel. That groups of die-hard Huguenots hid in the hills who could be rooted out en passant, while Duhamel and his men were on the spot helped, of course. The ban on firearms and pikes in place for the commoners did support Duhamel’s policing actions but left the peasantry either on the wrong side of the law or defenceless against the attacks of the beast.

A contemporary illustration showing a collage of attacks of the beast.

 Low-quality powder and shot along with the damp of the winter of 1764 probably led to the observation that the beast was somehow bullet-proof and its brazen attacks in broad daylight near human settlements added to the myth of its supernatural origins. The reports of survivors of the beast’s attacks along with sightings of its hunters did nothing to demystify the creature in any way. Big as a cow, at the very least, a red coloured fur with black stripes and a pointy snout, bristles on its back and long teeth and razor-sharp claws did not sound very much like a wolf. However, several large lupines were bagged by various authorities, from Captaine Duhamel to expert wolf hunters, enormous bounties collected and every time the killings continued until a local, Jean Chastel, brought it down on 19 June 1767, allegedly with blessed silver bullets. Survivors confirmed that the creature Chastel had shot was the beast, unfortunately its carcass rotted very fast and only one of its paws could be brought to Paris, but the spook was over and no more killings occurred.
Is it a hyena? is it a hybrid? Or even a cryptid, believed to have died out long since...

Since then, theories grew exuberantly about what the Beast of Gévaudan was. The most reasonable idea is that of one or even several large wolf-dog hybrids and conspiracists added the point of the beasts being trained to attack humans and even wearing armour, hence their unnatural toughness when fired upon. The beast definitely killed for sport and the frequency of attacks in places far apart from each other could be explained by the existence of something of a pack. Other beliefs bring in baboons, hyenas, sometimes trained to attack humans, sometimes not, and the legends of werewolves had been told since the 1760s. Various cryptids come into question as well, from a hence unknown giant wolverine-like mustelid, as the authors of the Cryptozoologicon have proposed, tongue-in-cheek, to scions of bear dogs, Amphycion, that have died out 5 million years ago, or even  Andrewsarchus, extinct since 30 million years. Both creatures vaguely resemble the descriptions of the beast, but a sudden appearance of a living fossil from a Lost World in the hills of Gévaudan is fabulous, but rather unlikely. Thus, the tale of the Beast of Gévaudan remains a mystery to this day, but that human involvement brought it into existence, at least to a certain extent, judging from the gruesome details, is a strong possibility.

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* Image by midmiocene found on:

Artist's imagination of Amphycion* 

Once upon a time in Tunguska

30 June 1908: A tremendous explosion a 1.000 times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, later known as the “Tunguska event”, flattened about 60 million trees in a 800 square miles area in Siberia.

“We had a hut by the river with my brother Chekaren. We were sleeping. Suddenly we both woke up at the same time. Somebody shoved us. We heard whistling and felt strong wind. Chekaren said, 'Can you hear all those birds flying overhead?' We were both in the hut, couldn't see what was going on outside. Suddenly, I got shoved again, this time so hard I fell into the fire. I got scared. Chekaren got scared too. We started crying out for father, mother, brother, but no one answered. There was noise beyond the hut, we could hear trees falling down. Chekaren and I got out of our sleeping bags and wanted to run out, but then the thunder struck. This was the first thunder. The Earth began to move and rock, wind hit our hut and knocked it over. My body was pushed down by sticks, but my head was in the clear. Then I saw a wonder: trees were falling, the branches were on fire, it became mighty bright, how can I say this, as if there was a second sun, my eyes were hurting, I even closed them. It was like what the Russians call lightning. And immediately there was a loud thunderclap. This was the second thunder. The morning was sunny, there were no clouds, our Sun was shining brightly as usual, and suddenly there came a second one!“ (Cuchan of the Shanyagir tribe, eye-witness of the Tunguska event)

A photo from the trees felled in the Tunguska event, taken during Leonid Kulik’s expedition in 1927 

The event was registered in places as a far apart as Great Britain and the Russian Pacific coast. By seismic stations and fluctuations in atmospheric pressure and by the night skies aglow across Eurasia for a few days, allegedly bright enough to allow people to read the newspaper outside in London. The most established theories about what happened on 30 June 1908 in Siberia agree that an asteroid or comet exploded roughly five miles about the taiga’s surface, making the Tunguska event the largest impact event in recorded history. On site, the effects were studied not before 1927, due to the remoteness of the area and the rather overwhelming political events that hit Russia in the first half of the 20th century. However, the consequences of the Tunguska event were still visible more than 20 years later. No crater was found and the butterfly-shaped pattern of the felled trees that were obviously either stripped or burned at the top remind of the nuclear blast of A- and H-bombs ignited in the atmosphere and the theory that something exploded high above the ground are undisputed, even though falling debris did cause craters, the largest of them being probably a hole called Lake Cheko, a small bowl-shaped lake, 708 metres long, 364 metres wide and about 50 metres deep.

A Soviet stamp issued on the 50th anniversary of the Tunguska event, remembering Leonid Kulik (1958)

The theories about what exactly exploded over Tunguska vary widely, a comet or asteroid suggests itself, but after the 1950s, with advancing physical knowledge and Soviet secrecy regarding the site, more exotic claims were made, ranging from natural H-bombs to a passing black hole hitting Siberia and a possible chunk of anti-matter burning up in the atmosphere. The most weird is relatively recent, postulating a swarm of gnats over the tundra in 1908 so big that they caused frictional heat cumulating in a combustion along the lines of the effects of an A-bomb. And, of course, Speculations about the Tunguska event being caused by endeavours of intelligent life forms are rampant since the 1920s. The most popular is, of course, a wrecked space ship, but established science fiction writers as well as conspiracy theorists spun a yarn from Tsarist atomic bomb tests, Soviet time machines and the side effects of an experiment by Nicola Tesla conducted about the same time.

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Sunday, 29 June 2014

"How dull and lifeless it is here!" - Schiller's Princess Eboli, the one-eyed Ana de Mendoza

29 June 1540, Ana de Mendoza y de la Cerda, Princess of Eboli, Duchess of Pastrana, was born in Cifuentes, Guadalajara.

“But then how lone, / How dull and lifeless it is here! We might / As well be in La Trappe.” (Princess Eboli in: Friedrich Schiller, “Don Carlos”)

A contemporary portrait of Doña Ana de Mendoza y de la Cerda
by an unknown artist

Unfortunately, Duchess Catalina de Silva’s reaction towards her teenage daughter Ana, coming home short of a right eye did not survive in history books, but it was very probably something along the lines of “I told you so” and “You can poke an eye out with one of those things”. Young Ana did indeed. Allegedly, she lost it during a fencing lesson, 250 years before such drills sans masque went out of style, or maybe even in a duel. However, wearing an eye-patch afterwards did nothing to diminish her celebrated beauty and gave her a somewhat rakish appearance – that belied her rather conservative approach on matrimony and becoming a mother of 10 children during the 20 years of marriage with Ruy Gómez de Silva, 1st Prince of Éboli, whom she married at the age of 13. Twenty years later, Ana was a widow and tried to enter a convent and that endeavour failed miserably. After a few weeks, she retired to the nunnery’s garden house because she and the Mother Superior simply could not agree and the Princess left the place for good after three years with a reputation of being haughty, scheming, having a passion for grandeur and downright unbearable – at least for St Teresa of Ávila and her reform convent in Pastrana.

Facsimile of the 1st edition of Friedrich Schiller's play "Don Carlos", Leipzig 1787

Princess of Eboli is, at least to culture vultures, best remembered as the schemer and mezzo-soprano from Verdi’s “Don Carlos” and Schiller’s eponymous play the opera is based on. Exchanging masks with Elisabeth de Valois, wife of King Philip II during a fancy dress ball and playing havoc with the correspondence of the titular hero out of unrequited love, Ana de Mendoza becomes a tragic heroine, cursing her fatal beauty and trying to save Don Carlos from his father’s wrath, while Schiller insists on the Princess as the plotter who orchestrates the Infante’s downfall. Back in the 16th century and the hotbed of intrigue of King Philip II’s court, she might indeed have been the monarch’s mistress, her husband was his friend and one of his counsellors, there are rumours that Ana’s second son Rodrigo was fathered by Philip, but her contact with the ill-fated and rebellious Infante Don Carlos was probably quite remote. John of Austria, hero of the Battle of Lepanto, Carlos’ uncle and the man who had betrayed some of the Infante’s rather muddleheaded plans to King Philip, was indeed at the centre of an intrigue, Princess Ana had spun with her lover, Antonio Pérez, the King’s secretary.

Alonso Sánchez Coello (1531 - 1588): "Portrait of Don John of Austria" (1567)

to marry Mary, Queen of the Scots, against the will of his royal half-brother and as Governor General of the Low Countries, Don John of Austria had become dangerously independent. Pérez and Princess Ana indeed had intercepted correspondence by him and his secretary Juan de Escobedo and altered the messages. And while Don John had conveniently died of a fever while campaigning in Namur in 1578, Escobedo was murdered in Madrid, probably by assassins on the payroll of Pérez and the princess. Philip was furious, Pérez was finally sentenced to death in 1590, while Princess Ana confronted the king, obviously with various issues and was placed under house arrest in her palace at Pastrana where she died in 1592 at the age of 51, probably from a long illness. Since then she has made her appearance not only in milestones of western cultural heritage but in various novels and television plays, as an unconventional lady who stood her ground and played an active part in the patriarchal structures of 16th century Spain – and wore her rakish eye-patch until her death.

And more about the Princess of Eboli on:,_Princess_of_Eboli

and on:

including the rather unromantic detail of the patch hiding just a lazy eye.

Friday, 27 June 2014

“I already told them the meat is fine." - Eisenstein and the “Potemkin” Mutiny in 1905

27 June 1905, the famous mutiny aboard the Imperial Russian battleship “Potemkin” began off Odessa, immortalised in Sergei Eisenstein’s eponymous movie.

“I already told them the meat is fine. The maggots are nothing more than larvae eggs that flies had laid there. They simply need to be washed away with salt and water. The cook did this on my instructions. If the crew continues to refuse to eat, then it is they who are spoiled. That's it." (“Potemkin’s” ship’s doctor Smirnov’s report to Frigate Captain Giliarovsky)

A Soviet propaganda poster from the late 1920s, the red text above the matelot’s head reads: “Freedom for all people – 1905” and the banner’s text: “Glory to the people’s heroes of Potemkin”

It was the rotten meat in their borsht that finally did it for the men of the “Kniaz Potemkin Tavricheskiy”. Even threatened at pistol point by the battleship’s XO, Frigate Captain Ippolit Ivanovic Giliarovsky, a downright tartar, the crew refused to touch the pigswill and stubbornly stuck to eating Бутерброд, butterbrot. “Potemkin’s” commander, Captain Golikov, hesitantly called all hands, only 12 men came forward, the ship’s marines were called out and Giliarovsky had the “Potemkin’s” deck covered with tarpaulin to prevent any fouling that was to be expected since he planned to teach the obviously mutinous crew a lesson. He grabbed a marine’s Mosin-Nagant rifle, took aim and shot one of the ringleaders, Grigory Vakulinchuk, while the marines dispersed. The crew, having somehow obtained some of the ship’s rifles, returned fire, Giliarovsky was hit twice and then tossed overboard. Seven of “Potemkin’s” 18 officers, including Captain Golikov, were killed afterwards, a committee took over, a red flag was hoisted and the “Potemkin” steamed towards Odessa.

The "Potemkin" steaming ahead.

Riots had already broken out in Odessa in the wake of the Revolution of 1905, the army was advancing and five battleships of the Black Sea Fleet were dispatched, either to retake or sink “Potemkin”. The mutinous battleship left Odessa on June 29th and the operation ended in a fiasco for the loyalists since nobody in the whole two squadrons followed orders to fire at “Potemkin” – that were given hesitantly anyway, every single one of them was antiquated compared to the new “Potemkin” - and one other ship, the old “Georgii Pobedonosets” even joined the mutiny for a time, until loyal elements of the crew retook her two days later and ran her aground near Odessa. The “Potemkin”, in the meanwhile, sailed for Romania and her crew was finally granted asylum by the local authorities. “Potemkin” was scuttled in the harbour of Constanta. The men were interned there while their ship was refloated and put into service of the Imperial Russian Navy again to serve in the Great War. She was finally scrapped in 1923.

Dramatic still from Eisenstein's iconic movie

While the ship and her story became iconic for the Soviet historical narrative as well as a name familiar to every cineaste all over the world due to Sergei Eisenstein’s epochal silent movie “Battleship Potemkin”, the fate of most of the mutineers remained obscure, most of them returned to Russia and were distributed among various army units, the ringleaders that decided to go back to Mother Russia were court-martialled and shot, as they would have been under any other government in the world. One crew member of the “Potemkin” decided to try his luck elsewhere, though. Ivan Beshov actually wanted to go to America, ended up in Dublin, was imprisoned as a spy, worked in the docks after his release and finally decided to open a fish and chips shop in Howth – and made his fortune. Today, the Beshoff Bros fish and chips shops are well known in Dublin and Ivan lived to the ripe old age of 104 years and according to his grandson John lived life to the fullest: “Until his death my grandpa could outdrink any Irishman,” remembers John with a smile. “He ate a lot of boiled fish and meat, and alcohol didn’t affect him at all. It is strange that he never drank vodka, and only rarely beer. But he was incredibly keen on Irish whiskey. Moreover, he adored strong cigars and he was always smoking his pipe.”

And more about the battleship and the mutiny on:

and Ivan Beshoff’s story on:

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

“Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled" - the Battle of Bannockburn

24 June 1314, 700 years ago, the Scots, led by King Robert the Bruce, decisively defeated a larger English army under King Edward II at Bannockburn.
“'Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled, / Scots, wham Bruce has aften led, / Welcome tae yer gory bed, / Or tae victorie.” (Robert Burns, “Scots Wha Hae“)

An illustration showing the clash of the Bruce and Henry de Bohun
at the first day of Bannockburn
from H E Marshall's 'Scotland's Story', published in 1906

King Edward II of England was a bit under pressure, following the footsteps of his father Edward the Longshanks, who was labelled “Hammer of the Scots”, in general, and in relieving the last English-held stronghold north of the border in particular. The castellan of Stirling Castle had agreed to surrender the place to the Scottish besiegers if no relieve force had arrived by Midsummer. Thus, Edward hurried his army, about 20,000 men, at least 2,000 well-trained and equipped knights among them, infantry and lots of archers, to the north and arrived just in the nick of time to prevent Sir Philip Mowbray from quitting Stirling. On June 23rd, 500 of Edward’s knights, eager to show the numerically inferior Scots under King Robert the Bruce what’s what, rushed ahead and met the very effective schiltrons already in place, basically men arranged defensively in a circle that bristled with long pikes like a hedgehog, impenetrable for even the best of cavalry, and the English knights who charged nonetheless, consequently got their noses bloodied. Seeing Robert the Bruce riding in front of his army after the first charge, young Sir Henry de Bohun couched his lance again and tried to decide the battle with one stroke. King Robert, mounted on ”ane gay palfray Li till and joly“, waited until the last moment, dodged Sir Henry’s deadly lance point and smashed the knight’s helmet and skull with one mighty blow of his battle-axe. With the handle of the weapon splintered, the Bruce, raised with an attitude of thriftiness, mourned the ruin of a perfectly good tool. “I have broken my good axe,” was all he said, while the men forming the schiltrons cheered.

Edmund Blair Leighton: “ Bruce Reviewing His Troops Before the Battle” (1909)

The next day, the English, still positioned between the rivers Pelstream and Bannock on swampy ground after the failed advance, were in for another surprise. The defensive hedgehogs of the Scots could actually move and they did, advancing with their long spears and driving the English deeper into the mud and finally the waters of the Bannock. The archers that had shot the schiltrons to pieces at Falkirk in 1298 under Edward the Longhshanks, were drawn up, far to late and probably in a wrong position, began to shower Scots and English alike with their arrows and were soon dispersed by King Robert’s small cavalry force that had somehow been forgotten to be taken into account by the English. Edward II fled the field and left his army to be slaughtered. By the end of the day, Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn had secured Scottish independence during the rest of the Middle Ages.

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