Monday, 29 December 2014

"... our first armourclad ship of war, would cause a fundamental change" - HMS Warrior

29 December 1860, HMS “Warrior”, the first British seagoing ironclad warship, was launched at Blackwall, London.

“It certainly was not appreciated that this, our first armourclad ship of war, would cause a fundamental change in what had been in vogue for something like a thousand years.“ (Admiral of the Fleet John “Jackie” Fisher)

 HMS “Warrior” as a museum ship in Portsmouth today*

The advent of steam power was supposed to change everything in seafaring. By and large, steam-powered ships were faster than rag wagons, more manoeuvrable and, of course, quite independent from which way the winds blew, close to dangerous lee shores as well as in the doldrums of the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. However, the large paddle-wheels necessary to propel a vessel were highly vulnerable, diminished the space a warship needed for her broadside mounted guns considerably and, on a strategic level, required large coal bunkers around the world to keep an ocean-going fleet going that was supposed to rule the waves and protect the sea lanes of a world-spanning empire. The British admiralty had thus every reason to remain conservative and commission further wooden sailing ships-of-the-line and frigates, but a generation after the Battle of Trafalgar, the industrial age came at the Royal Navy with a vengeance and a few groundbreaking inventions made the old wooden walls useless almost overnight - screw propellers that superseded the paddle wheels, explosive shells, the armour necessary for protecting a ship against them and the possibility to construct iron hulls. 

French ironclad "La Gloire" at anchor in 1860

And while Admiralty still pondered the impact of the new-fangled inventions on naval warfare in general, the French had the cheek to launch a steam-powered, oceangoing, ironclad warship, “La Gloire”, in 1859, had two more of them laid down and British supremacy on the high seas was threatened in earnest. Questions were asked in parliament, the Queen was not amused and something had to be done and rather quick. The result was a radically new design, an iron-hulled, screw-propelled, very fast and heavily armed and armoured frigate built along the lines of HMS “Mersey”, the largest wooden warship ever designed, twice the size of Nelson’s old “Victory”. And even if she froze in the slipway in Blackwall on the day of her launch in 1860 during the coldest winter England had seen over the last 50 year and had to be rocked and tugged free, HMS “Warrior” was commissioned just eight months later in August 1861 and the Royal Navy was back into the game. The “Warrior” and her sister ship “Black Prince” commissioned half a year later were the fastest and strongest warships afloat in her day and no contemporary artillery was able to pierce her armour. Nonetheless, both ships were not meant to stand and fight in a line-of-battle, but control an engagement with their superior abilities. And then a seemingly insignificant duel between two ironclads in Chesapeake Bay in March 1862 during the US Civil War launched the next round in the international arms race. Actually, “Warrior” and “Black Prince” were already outdated as soon as they were put to sea.

HMS "Devastation", launched in 1871 on a photograph taken in 1897 in front of an old ship of the line

By the end of the 1860s, all sea powers operated ocean-going ironclads and HMS “Warrior” never had to fire a shot in anger anyway. The lessons learned from USS “Monitor”, solely steam-driven and with her main armament in a rotatable gun-turret instead of the centuries old broadsides led to a complete new design of warships that had almost nothing in common with the old wooden sailing ships-of-the-line. Steel began to play another pivotal role in shipbuilding and when HMS “Devastation” was commissioned in 1873, the Royal Navy had her first ocean-going steel-hulled capital ship afloat that did not carry sails and had her whole armament mounted on top of the hull instead of inside it. Ships like “Warrior” had become almost completely useless and she suffered a rather ignominious fate after she was finally decommissioned in 1881. Ironically enough, “Warrior” was saved from the knacker’s yard in the 1920s when quite a surplus of scrap metal from outdated pre-dreadnoughts like the successors of “Devastation” and dreadnoughts was on the market, broken up after the Great War, while the world was already preparing for the next arms race and global conflict. Lovingly restored since 1979, HMS “Warrior” survived them all and now lies in her berth at Portsmouth as a museum ship to be wondered and marvelled at, a witness from a bygone age, when steam was all the rage and 400 years of maritime history became a thing of the past all of a sudden.

HMS "Warrior" steaming under sail in 1872

* The photo of HMS “Warrior” depicted above was  taken in 2011 by Editor5807, found on,_1860)?uselang=de#mediaviewer/File:HMS_Warrior_at_sunrise.JPG

And more about HMS “Warrior” on:

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Russian painter and scene- and costume designer Léon Bakst

28 December 1924, the Russian painter and scene- and costume designer Léon Bakst died in Paris at the age of 58.

“It is goodbye to scenery designed by a painter blindly subjected to one part of the work, to costumes made by any old dressmaker who strikes a false and foreign note in the production; it is goodbye to the kind of acting, movements, false notes and that terrible, purely literary wealth of details which make modern theatrical production a collection of tiny impressions without that unique simplicity which emanates from a true work of art.“ (Leon Bakst)

"La Sultane Bleue" - Léon Bakst's costume design for
 Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" (1910)

It is not uncommon for the late times of an epoch to produce not only the yearning for exquisite beauty but to mould the necessary artists from the clay of conservative art. On the eve of the Great War, some of them devoted themselves to celebrate beauteousness instead of exploring the abysses of the soul and the edges of perception and created a total art style that encompassed everything from poster ads and cigarette cases to cathedrals, Art Nouveau, Sezession, Jugendstil, the modern style. In Imperial Russia it took one genius of an impresario to make the dance on the volcano a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, Serge Diaghilev. His “Ballets Russes” encompassed composers like Debussy, Prokofiev, Ravel and, of course, Stravinksy, on stage was, among other celebrities of the time, the “God of Dance” himself, Vaslav Nijinsky and his costumes and stage designs emerged as a new art form and his chief designer was Léon Bakst.

Nijinsky as "Dieu Bleu", costume design by Léon Bakst (1911)

Diaghilev and Bakst had worked together on several art projects until the Ballets Russes was launched in 1908 when the choreographer Michel Foukine’s approach to get rid of full evening story ballets like “Swan Lake”, enacted in front of a simple stage design and just the tutus decorated with symbols was first staged and both had taken to Foukine’s concept like fish to water. Bakst, bored of being just another painter and illustrator, went at the stage sets with a vengeance and created revolutionary decorations and costumes according to the relevant mood and setting of the staged musical piece, a literal explosion of Art Nouveau forms and colours and symbols. Diaghilev’ Ballets Russes and Bakst’s designs became all the rage all over the world, when “Cleopatra”, a one-acter, premiered in Paris in 1909 and, curiously enough, Kaiser Wilhelm, not exactly an Art Nouveau fan, who was present during the opening night, urged his Society of Egyptology to take Bakst’s mise-en-scene as an example.

Léon Bakst's set design for "Cleopatra" or "Nuit d"Egypte" (1909)

Until the war broke out, Bakst’s designs were an integral part for the very successful performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”, Schuman’s “Carnaval”, Debussy’s “L'après-midi d'un faune” and Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” and then everything went pear-shaped anyway. After the Revolution, Bakst chose to remain in Paris after a short stay in the United States and a thorough falling out with Diaghilev. Artists like Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel had, among others, filled Bakst’s role and while the Ballets Russes continued to be celebrated until 1929, one of his godfathers died in a Paris hospital, not forgotten but rather outdone by others. Nonetheless, he was led to rest by a host of admirers in an allegedly very moving ceremony who still cherished his contribution to one of the most beautiful and revolutionary total works of art.

And more about Leon Bakst on:

and a monographic show including some of his paintings can be found on:

Friday, 26 December 2014

“This is the splendor of the great Costanza" - “the wonder of the world”, Emperor Frederick II is born in Iesy

26 December 1194, “the wonder of the world”, Emperor Frederick II was born in Iesy near Ancona under rather adverse conditions.

“This is the splendor of the great Costanza,
who from the Swabians' second gust engendered
the one who was their third and final power." (Dante, “Paradiso“)

The birth scene of Frederick II in the tent at Iesi, as imagined by the 14th century chronicler Giovanni Villani

Either she was a nun, requiring papal dispense for marrying the King of the Romans or she was just ugly like a sack full of toads, however, it was highly unusual for a princesse du sang not to be married at the age of 30. That Henry, son of the Holy Roman Frederick Barbarossa, would espouse Constance of House Hauteville, traditional supporters of the Pope, and the lady, or at least her son, about to inherit the throne of Norman Sicily and southern Italy, was probably the worst political nightmare the Holy See could imagine during the High Middle Ages. The happy couple married nonetheless in 1186, Henry and Constance were crowned emperor and empress after Barbarossa’s death in 1191 and with the vast funds gained from the ransom of Richard the Lionheart’s ransom money, Emperor Henry VI was able to finance the campaign to bring rebellious Sicily into the folds of the Holy Roman Empire.

A nun after all? In Heaven, Dante and Beatrice meet Constance de Hauteville accompanied by Piccarda Donati, of all the people, an Italian nun who was forced to renounce her vows (Illustration of Dante's "Paradiso", Canto III, by Francesco Scaramuzza, 1803 - 1886)

After eight years of marriage, Empress Constance was finally pregnant and followed in her husband’s wake to Italy and her native Sicily. When Henry finally was crowned King of Sicily on Christmas Day 1194 in Palermo, Constance had to stop in the town of Iesi near Ancona and was about to give birth, 8 weeks after her 40th birthday, not quite the ideal age for becoming a mother by medieval standards. Anti-Imperial rumours persisted since then, that her pregnancy was either faked or that she was pseudopregnant and, according to popular legend, Empress Constance felt compelled to give birth in public, in a tent on the town square of Iesi. Nonetheless, the rumours that another child was brought in never fell silent, the son of a butcher or a falconer, the latter accusation being not without bitter irony, since the future emperor wrote a famous book on falconry.

Stupor Mundi Frederick II,
Illustration from his book De arte venandi cum avibus
("The art of hunting with birds, late 13th century)

At the age of two, the child was crowned in absence as German king, or King of the Romans as the exact wording had been back in the day, he spent the first three years of his life in Spoleto, then his father the emperor died in 1197, the child was crowned King of Sicily in the following year in Palermo, his mother Constance died the same year and the boy grew up at the Sicilian court under the guardianship of the pope. Allegedly, young Federico roamed through the streets of Palermo, begged for his food and learned his Sicilian and Arabic there. Finally, though, he became one of the most glamorous European rulers of the Middle Ages, Emperor Frederick II. Probably not a philosopher on the emperor’s throne, Frederick was at least a scholar, writing a book about Falconry, occupying the scholars of his own and foreign courts with various scientific questions and brought about a paradigm change in the self-conception of understanding power and rulership in the Middle Ages. Recurring on and newly codifying Roman law, he might have felt like a divine antique emperor, but he did it based on legal grounds that would be groundbreaking for the dawn of the modern age, in Italy and elsewhere. The man Frederick himself, half Sicilian, half Swabian with his Faustian quest for knowledge and absolute power is hard to be up to after centuries of Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and the national myths of 19th and early 20th centuries. The most fitting description remains the over 750 years old dictum of Frederick II being the stupor mundi, “wonder of the world” and it stands to reason that Frederick was wondering about himself and his various roles himself.

And more about Frederick II on:,_Holy_Roman_Emperor

Thursday, 25 December 2014

The birth of the sun god Sol Invictus

25 December 274 CE, 1,740 years ago, by order of the Roman Emperor Lucius Domitius Aurelianus, the birth of the sun god Sol Invictus was officially celebrated for the first time in Rome.

“Let us celebrate this day as a feast not for the sake of this sun, which is beheld by believers as much as by ourselves, but for the sake of him who created the sun" (Sermon of Augustine of Hippo)

Apollon-Sol depicted on a floor mosaic from the late 3rd century CE

He saw you when you were sleeping, he knew when you were awake. Until the last days of the Republic, Sol Indiges, the native Roman sun god, had been regarded as a being of lesser importance, was, with his radiate crown probably retrospectively, added to the cult of the divine Augustus and finally became the patron deity of the Roman emperors after the discovery of the Pisonian conspiracy against Nero was attributed to the workings of Sol. He was “all-seeing” and thus knew of all outrages. Vespasian dedicated a huge statue in his honour around 75 CE and since the rule of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, radiantly crowned Sol appeared on imperial coinage and as the western manifestation of Mithras as Sol Invictus Mithras. There was, however, an eastern form of the deities, of Mithras as well as Sol, engaging with the Roman cult at the latest since mid-3rd century CE. The eastern cult’s centre, revering the sun under the name of Elagabalus, was since centuries based in the city of Emesa, present-day Homs in Syria. Emperor Septimus Severus married Julia Domna, daughter of an influential Elagabalus-priest, on the brink of the crisis of the 3rd century and her grand-nephew Varius Avitus Bassianus, who tried to give the Roman cult a certain Eastern colour according to his heritage, took his rule straight to the wall. He became one of the most vilified Roman emperors and his name a byword for decadence, Heliogabalus.

Bas-relief from the 4th century CE showing Mithras killing the bull in the Tauroctony turning his face to Sol Invictus

Nevertheless, it was during the rule of Bassianus that Sol Invictus was finally established as Imperial deity and when Emperor Aurelian had finally brought back Queen Zenobia’s rebellious Palmyrene Empire in Syria, of all the places, back into the folds of Rome, with his victory attributed to the western Sol Invictus, the deity was revered as supreme god of the Roman state cult. His birthday along with the anniversary of the dedication of his temple on the Campus Martius in Rome was ever since celebrated on December 25th, an old public holiday that reached back to the calendric date of the winter solstice of Caesar’s Julian calendar. At least since the early 4th century, Sol Invictus took on henotheistic features, he became the sole god that had absorbed the roles of many Greco-Roman deities, his cult, though, allowed for the existence and reverence of other divine beings, in contrast to monotheistic religions. Whether Sol and Mithras were merged into a single deity or remained individual gods remains unclear, but at least the army seems to have paid special regards to the mithraic aspect of Sol.

 A mosaic from the Vatican grottoes under St. Peter's Basilica, 
on the ceiling of the tomb of the Julii, 
representing Christ as the sun god Sol Invictus riding in his chariot. 
Dated to the 3rd century CE.

A hundred years later, when Christianity was declared to be the Roman state religion by Emperor Theodosius in 392, all other cults, including that of Sol Invictus, became illegal in the Empire. Several traits of the theology and the ritual acts of Sol Invictus had been integrated, though, voluntarily and involuntarily into Christianity and Pope Leo the Great still complained in the mid-450s about the custom of pilgrims bowing towards the sun before they entered St Peter’s and in Syria, Sol was revered at least until the 6th century. That Christ was born on December 25th as well might be a coincidence, but one that was at the very least tacitly accepted by the church fathers, while Sundays, as days of rest, were definitely Emperor Constantine’s idea of revering the sun: “On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.”

And more about Sol Invictus on:

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

"All quiet on the Western Front" - The Christmas Truce of 1914

24 December a hundred years ago in 1914 on the Western Front, an unofficial cessation of hostilities spread through the trenches, later known as the Christmas truce. 

“Meanwhile, Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged, addresses given and received, photos of families shown etc. One of our fellows offered a German a cigarette; the German said, "Virginian?" Our fellow said, "Aye, straight-cut." The German said, "No thanks, I only smoke Turkish!" (Sort of 10 shillings a hundred man, me. It gave us all a good laugh.). A German N.C.O. with the Iron Cross – gained, he told me, for conspicuous skill in sniping – started his fellows off on some marching tune. When they had done I set the note for ‘The Boys of Bonnie Scotland where the heather and the bluebells grow’, and so we went on, singing everything from ‘Good King Wenceslaus’ down to the ordinary Tommies’ song, and ended up with 'Auld lang syne' which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!" (Captain Sir Edward Hulse, Scots Guards)

Christmas Truce - “Illustrated London News” on January 9, 1915*

In December 1914, after three months of modern war in France, everyone had realised that those who’d be home for Christmas had either caught a packet or were dead. The rival armies had fought to a standstill in Flanders after offensives and counteroffensives, the muddy trenches had frozen over and even if the horrors of the Russo-Japanese and the Boer War should have set everyone’s expectations for what was to come, nobody was quite prepared for the dimensions of modern war. A few days before Christmas then, the Christmas Mary Box gifts arrived in the British lines and the Germans received gift parcels along with collapsible Christmas trees and the express order of the Kaiser and the Oberste Heeresleitung, the Supreme Army Command, that the latter were to be lit up on Christmas Eve. On the same day, at first along the trenches near Ypres, an informal cease fire was agreed to on company level to bury the dead in the No-Mans-Land between the British and German lines, about 300 feet apart. And somehow, the men began to exchange gifts, cakes, fags and spirits. And then a Landser respectfully asked Tommy not to shoot while the Germans would sing Christmas carols in their trench and the British complied and applauded afterwards and were asked to sing along. One British die-hard cried out he’d rather die than sing in German and the Germans answered they’d shoot him if he did anyway. Everybody laughed and nobody wanted to slaughter his fellow man, at least not for a day.

A contemporary photograph of British and German soldiers during the truce

happened, admittedly, before the complete dehumanisation of the war, before the endless artillery barrages, the widespread use of poison gas and months and years of fighting, living and dying in the trenches. Back in 1914, though, during the informal Christmas truce, bilingual services were celebrated, gifts and addresses exchanged, British, Germans and French soldiers boozed together and there is the persistent rumour of football matches, played with bully beef ration tins and maybe even an organised match with a ball, goals and a referee, that ended, somewhat unsurprisingly, 3-2 for Germany. The unofficial truce ended in some places as late as 26 December and even though it was condemned by the various high commands and the press on the continent pretended it had never happened, but at least there was no disciplinary action against the thousands of participants on a front line that stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland. The informal Christmas truces were never repeated to that extent during the rest of the war either. It remained a short glimpse of humanity and goodwill before the catastrophe of the 20th century asserted itself.

* British newspapers did not ignore the events, though. Depicted above is an illustration that appeared in the “Illustrated London News” on January 9, 1915, captioned with: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches - Saxons and Anglo-Saxons fraternising on the field of battle at the season of peace and goodwill: Officers and men from the German and British trenches meet and greet one another—A German officer photographing a group of foes and friends."

And more about the Christmas truce of 1914 on:

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

“All, that which gains immortal life in song" - the Polish-Lithuanian freedom fighter Emilia Plater

23 December 1831, the Polish-Lithuanian freedom fighter Emilia Plater, heroine of the November Uprising, died in Justianiów, 90 miles southwest of Vilnius, at the age of 25.

“Was unsterblich im Gesang will leben,
Muss im Leben untergehen.”

(“All, that which gains immortal life in song, To mortal life must perish!“, Friedrich Schiller as quoted by Adam Mickiewicz in his preface to “Konrad Wallenrod“) 

Polish nationalist painter Wojciech Kossak’s (1856 – 1942) imagination of a cavalry skirmish fought by Emilia Plater near Šiauliai in Northern Lithuania with the heroine in the centre firing her saddle pistol at a Russian cossack (1904)

It happened back in the day, when Romantic poems moved people not only to tears but, more often than not, to rather drastic actions, from committing suicide to taking up arms and trying to free Greece – or one’s own subjugated pastures. And so it happened with the young, well-educated, hero-worshipping and, naturally, quite Romantic Polish-Lithuanian aristo Emilia Plater. Once a proud European major power, Poland as a state had ceased to exist since 1795 and did, after a short summer of semi-independence as Duchy of Warsaw by the grace of Napoleon, groan under the yoke of Russia, Prussia and Austria since then. Consequently, armed rebellion broke out in November 1830. And young Emilia raised in arms along with revolutionaries, trying to emulate Laskarina Bouboulia, heroine of the Greek War of Independence, Schiller’s “Maid of Orleans” and, of course, the Romantic Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz's creation, the beautiful and tragic warrior princess Grażyna.

Jan Rosen (1854 - 1936) "Emilia Plater" leading peasants armed with scythes (ca 1890)

Emilia cut her hair, slipped into a captain’s uniform and gathered a group of patriots from her estate near Dźwińsk in southeastern Latvia to fight the 115,000 Russians under Field Marshal Hans Karl von Diebitsch who had marched into Poland in February 1831 to re-establish the Tsar’s order. Whether Emilia’s insurgents saw any fighting at all is doubtful, despite heavy combat taking place while Diebitsch advanced westward towards Warsaw during the spring. In May, however, Emilia and her people were integrated in the Polish army of General Dezydery Chłapowski, Emilia’s rank of captain was confirmed and she became c.o. of the 1st company of the Polish–Lithuanian 25th Infantry Regiment. Four weeks later, though, after a few defeats, most notably at Ostrołęka on May 26th, Chłapowski marched towards the Prussian territory around Königsberg to get his army interned there and save the lives of his men. Emilia outspokenly refused Chłapowski’s orders, wanted to fight on and tried to battle her way with a few men of her own through to Warsaw 350 miles away. And then her romantically weak constitution got the better of her, she fell seriously ill and died near the Lithuanian border in the manor of a local noble where she had found refuge.

Contemporary portrait of Emilia Plater

After the Polish November Uprising had ended in October 1831, Mickiewicz, in his Parisian exile, made Emilia his own Polish-Lithuanian Joan of Arc with his poem "Śmierć pułkownika" (Death of a Colonel), a more or less fictional account of her deeds and her death during the war. However, Emilia Plater did become a heroine in Poland, Lithuania and Belarus and not least because of Mickiewicz’ fiction, painted, sung about and finally depicted on a złoty note, but, what is far more important, she was an inspiration to all those who fought against occupation and oppression over the following century in the region’s turbulent and often very unhappy history.

And more about Emilia Plater on:

Monday, 22 December 2014

“These anomalous forms may almost be called living fossils" - Majorie Courtenay-Latimer and the Coelacanth

22 December 1938, the South African museum curator Majorie Courtenay-Latimer was alerted to the catch of a coelacanth, a living fossil fish, previously believed extinct more than 65 million years ago.

“These anomalous forms may almost be called living fossils; they have endured to the present day, from having inhabited a confined area, and from having thus been exposed to less severe competition.“ (Charles Darwin , “On the Origin of Species”)

A postcard commemorating the discovery of the coelacanth by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer in December 1938

It was one of those phone calls you wait for a lifetime and Majorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of the South African East London Museum received it at the age of 31. Her museum had opened just a couple of years before and Majorie was still avid to extend its collection. Thus, she had an agreement with the local fishermen to call her when they’d fish something curious out of the Indian Ocean and then, on a fine Thursday morning, Hendrik Goosen, skipper of the trawler “Nerine” just had come home from sea and phoned her immediately. Yes, he had found such a curiosity in his nets, caught off the mouth of the Chalumna River, Majorie dropped everything and ran to the docks to inspect Captain Goosen’s catch and would not be disappointed: “I picked away at the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen," she said. "It was five foot long, a pale mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots; it had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy dog tail."

A live coelacanth off South Africa playing tag with a diver* 

Majorie was at a loss about what exactly Captain Goosen had caught there. She hit her books and wasn’t any wiser until she consulted an ichthyologist, J.L.B. Smith from Rhodes University, Grahamstown. Smith immediately recognised the brute as a coelacanth, believed to be extinct since the end of the Cretaceous period, more than 65 million years ago. This one had been pretty much alive until quite recently, though, a scientific sensation. Coelacanths were believed to be a transitional species between fish and land-living tetrapods, more closely related to reptiles and mammals than to ray-finned marine animals. Until 1938, ichthyology assumed that coelacanths did not survive the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event along with the rest of 75% of all species that became extinct back then, but, quite obviously, Captain Goosen had netted a living fossil. 

Cast in stone: a coelacanth from a marine Bavaria, 70 million years ago

The Chalumna River coelacanth remained on exhibition in the East London Museum to this day after Majorie had persuaded the Board of Directors not to sell it for £ 5,000 to the British Museum (Natural History) and the rediscovered species was named in her honour Latimeria chalumnae, West Indian Ocean coelacanth. Fortunately for them, coelacanths taste horrible and are of no use as food fish but get occasionally caught in deep-sea fishing nets, nevertheless a pair of marine biology students discovered one in a fish market in Manado on Sulawesi Island in Indonesia, thousands of miles away from the Indian Ocean and a second population of coelacanths has been detected in the Celebes Sea in 2000. However, the living fossils are extremely rare and are rated as threatened.

* the image above was found on:

And more about coelacanths and Majorie Courtenay-Latimer on:

Sunday, 21 December 2014

“… many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting." Winter Solstice

21 December: Winter Solstice or midwinter night marks the longest night of the year and one of the traditional dates when the Wild Hunt is abroad.

“… many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.“ (The Peterborough Chronicle)

An imagination of the Wild Hunt painted by Emil Doepler, who died on 21 December 1922 in Munich at the age of 67, an Art Noveau illustrator who designed the eagle decorating the future Federal German escutcheon and various depictions of Germanic mythology.

The Iranian festival of Yaldā night is one of the very few actually celebrated on the longest and darkest night of the year, midwinter. At least according to the few sources we have from the grey past. The Germanic tribes very probably celebrated their Yule festival with logs, boars and goats and what not when the worst was over, on the night of the first full moon, 40 days after midwinter. Because the year’s longest night was the first of the four “Rauhnächte”, the rough nights, when the Odin’s Wild Hunt set forth and the time “between the years” began. The image of spectral huntsmen riding across the skies in the nights following midwinter is almost universal among the Celtic and Germanic tribes across Europe and echo similar beliefs among most other Indo-European peoples. The Germanic belief is generally that the huntsmen are dead warriors or, later, the souls of the restless dead who are condemned to eternal walking because they died before their time. The connection to the Yule festivals are close, though, and Odin bears, among many others, the soubriquet jólfaðr, Yule Father.

John Bauer: "Odin and Sleipnir" (1911)

The “Rauhnächte” beginning on midwinter are generally reputed to be a time when the gates of the underworld are open and the whole caboodle of hellish creatures has a pass to roam the world of the living, from draugr, the Norse revenants who walk during the “rough nights” and feed on the blood of livestock and people, to witches and mages who are supposed to haunt crossroads as werewolves. Several other, less gory but equally deadly tales are told about the four “Rauhnächte”, such as the custom of keeping one’s house clean and especially not leave the washing hanging lest the Wild Hunts steals the bedclothes and returns them over the year as winding sheets as well the rather widespread yarn of animals being able to speak in human tongues during these nights and predict the future, unfortunately hearing these prophecies uttered means death to the listener, sooner than later. Prophecies are quite common during midwinter night all across the Northern Hemisphere, usually with a less fatal outcome regardless of the “Rauhnacht”, from the charming stichomancy, the “divination by lines of verse in books taken at hazard“ practised by picking passages from Hafez’ “Divan” during Yaldā in Iran to various divinations taken from randomly opening the Bible in Central Europe. 

Alfred Kubin's (1877 - 1959) Expressionistic vision of a "Rauhnacht" (1925)

It’s not that occasion was not celebrated in Northern Europe beyond all the charms and commandments to ward off things that go bump in the Midwinter Night, though. Since the late Middle Ages, the date is connected with Thomas the Apostle, in the vernacular midwinter night is called St Thomas Night, and besides the ringing of church bells for the next twelve nights, the bells of St Thomas to keep away evil spirits, fattened pigs are slaughtered for Christmas, various customs to see future husbands and wives at crossroads – in case werewolves aren’t present – or standing naked by one’s bedside and reciting formulas are celebrated and some regions just booze the night away. The following days is consequently called “Kotzmorgen”, morning of vomit.

More about the Wild Hunt on

and Emil Doepler on:

A few of his illustrations can be found on this Italian website:

Saturday, 20 December 2014

David Schwarz and the idea of the all-metal aerostat

20 December 1852, the Hungarian-Croatian aviation pioneer and shnorrer David Schwarz was born in Keszthely, halfway between Budapest and Zagreb.

“The aerostat interested me most of all and by that time I had sufficient knowledge to calculate how large a balloon must be to rise in the air with passengers. Since then the idea of the all-metal aerostat has never left my mind.” (Konstantin Tsiolkovsky)

 contemporary drawing of Schwarz’s airship preparing to take off

It was just a year after the airship “La France” made the first fully controlled free-flight in 1884 when the Russian almost-universal genius Konstantin Tsiolkovsky pondered the concept of an all-metal dirigible in the small town of Borovsk somewhere in Kaluga province. Rubber-skinned airships had the tendency to let the hydrogen escape after a period of time that was difficult to predict with fatal consequences to possible flight durations and those rubber-coated fabric coverings stretched over a length of more than 150’ holding over 60,000 cubic feet of hydrogen were not very durable anyway. Airtight metal envelops seemed to be a theoretical alternative and Tsiolkovsky had it all drawn up, a metal-clad design that would allow the airship to preserve constant buoyancy at all altitudes and temperatures and even the necessary control of the filling gas could be handled with measured release of the exhaust gas of the ship’s engines. But, unfortunately, metal like tin or bronze tends to be rather brittle or very heavy but then, during the late 1880s, aluminium was discovered and produced as high-strength material.

"La France" in her hangar in 1884

Tsiolkovsky’s project description for designing an all-metal prototype was sent to the VII Aeronautic Department of the Russian Technical Society with the request to construct a prototype and was promptly refused in 1891. They already had another design, that of David Schwarz, previously demonstrated to the Ministry of War of the Danube Monarchy where it went down like a lead balloon. Schwarz was an autodidact and a timber merchant by trade, but his idea to use aluminium for the inner framework, the rigidly mounted nacelle as well as the balloon skin, made from 0,2 mm aluminium sheet, was quite revolutionary. Project cost for the design of the airship ran out of the rudder, though, and the planned 1,500 roubles had become more than a 100,000 after two years and the skin still wasn’t airtight. Schwarz’s Russian all-metal airship prototype very probably never flew and in 1894 he deemed it proper to quit the place in the dead of the night without leaving a forwarding address.

ZMC-2 in 1929 - the only successful Metal-clad airship yet

A year later, Schwarz had persuaded a new investor in Berlin, the entrepreneur and aluminium fabricator Carl Berg and his engineers revised the original plans of the airship. With the support of the Prussian Feldluftschiffereiabteilung, the army’s aeronautical department, the project was realised at Tempelhof over the next two years. Schwarz did not live to see it completed, though. He died in Vienna at the age of 44 of cardiac failure on 13 January 1897, but in November of the same year, the first all-metal airship took off at Tempelhof for a first flight, broke free from its lanyards and had to be crash-landed by its pilot. Berg, after some belated inquiries about Schwarz’s exploits in Russia, felt swindled and decided not to pursue the project any further and sell what he had so far to Count Zeppelin and the first truly successful experimental rigid airship, Zeppelin LZ 1, flew from its floating hangar on Lake Constance near Friedrichshafen on 2 July 1900. It took until 1929 for the first and only operational metal-skinned airship ever built to be completed, the ZMC-2, manufactured by the Detroit Aircraft Corporation and operated from Lakehurst until 1941. After that, no more all-metal airships had been built, even though the concept was more or less sound.

And more about David Schwarz on:

and metal-clad airships on: