Sexual assault survivor, cancer survivor, liver transplant recipient. Diagnosed high functioning Schizoaffective Disorder. Uses Zen Buddhism, poetry and essay writing, researching ancient history, literature, myth & folklore as coping strategies.
The Chained Books of Hereford Cathedral (Hereford, Herefordshire – Great Britain)
This cathedral contains two medieval marvels: a chained library of rare books and one of the earliest maps of the world.
In the Middle Ages, before the availability of the printing press, volumes on law and religion were quite rare and valuable. To protect against theft, the books at Hereford Cathedral were chained to desks, pulpits, and study tables.
The chained library was created in 1611 when a collection of hand-transcribed, hand-bound books was moved into the Lady Chapel. Most of the volumes in the collection are acquisitions dating back to the 1100s, although the oldest book in the collection, the Hereford Gospels, dates to about the year 800.
The medieval world map stored at Hereford Cathedral depicts three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. On the as-yet-unexplored periphery of these lands roam fire-breathing dragons, dog-faced men, people who survive on only the scent of apples, and the Monocoli, a race of mythical beings who take shade under their giant feet when the sun becomes too bright.
The 5 × 4.5-foot map (1.5 × 1.4 m), created around 1300, is part geography, part history, and part religious teaching aid. A lack of confirmed information on Asian and African geography presented no obstacle for the mapmaker, who used hearsay, mythology, and imagination to fill in the gaps—which explains the four-eyed Ethiopians.
In the 1930s an occultist,writer and hardware store owner published a theory that pyramids might have special powers, such as preserving food, sharpening blades and focusing the mind. The theory was picked up by Karel Drbal, a Czech businessman who created a pyramid shaped box for sharpening knives.
The idea of pyramid power might have ended here, if paranormal authors Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder had not met with Drbal while traveling and written an entire chapter about the theory of pyramid power in their new-age hit “Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain.” Pyramid power was now an established part of new-age belief.
Picking up the torch was Ukrainian defense contractor Alexander Golod. Golod’s research on pyramids is bizarre, innovative, and entirely unscientific. Nonetheless he is committed to his work and Golod created a 150-foot-high fiberglass pyramid in Russia to begin his strange experiments. Although he created multiple pyramids, his most notable is an hour outside of Moscow and stands at 150-feet high.
After a number of longitudinal studies, Golod’s research found that the pyramid presence had some serious effects, including increasing the immune system, increasing agricultural yield 30-100%, and decreasing the effects of pathogens and radioactive material. Other organizations such as the International Partnership for Pyramid Research and Pyramid of Life are major proponents of pyramid therapy.
Despite a website claiming scientific support from the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences there is no published scientific evidence to support any of these claims.
The Crooked Forest (Nowe Czarnowo, West Pomerania – Poland)
At first, Gryfino Forest looks to be a run-of-the-mill field of trees. And then you see it: a group of 400 pines, each with a mysterious, dramatic bend close to the ground.
The trees’ unusual but uniform “J” shape is likely the result of human intervention—probably farmers who manipulated the trees with the intention of turning them into curved furniture. The pines, planted in 1930, had around ten years of normal growth before being distorted. An alternative theory holds that regular flooding caused the unusual shapes.
Before turning their thoughts to the intriguing legends associated with these ruins, any person who strays off the marked footpaths and loses his or her footing on the edge of the precipices that drop away on every side of this aptly nicknamed “citadel in the sky.” And let us not forget that early in 1244 it was a feat of rock climbing that sealed the fate of the Cathars when they were besieged here by the army of King Louis IX. After seven months, during which traditional military strategies had brought nothing but failure, Hugues des Arcis, the commander of the forces encamped at the foot of this eagle’s nest, finally decided to send a small group of particularly agile soldiers up the cliff face. Under cover of darkness, this detachment reached the summit, captured a watchtower, and installed a trebuchet, with which it proceeded to bombard the interior of the castle without respite, making life impossible for the besieged, who were forced to surrender after a few weeks.
The fate of this community, the last bastion of the Cathar faith in France, is well known. One Sunday in March 1244, the day of the equinox, the believers—more than two hundred men and women—were led down to a pyre that had been set up at the foot of the hill, steadfastly refusing to renounce their faith. What else could they do, these pacifists who had taken a vow to show courage in the face of suffering and death? The name Cathar—from the Greek katharos, meaning “pure”—was given them by their contemporaries on account of their asceticism and refusal to compromise in any way. For the same reason, those who had undergone the rite of ordination called the consolamentum were known as perfecti, although among one another they preferred the terms “good man” and “good woman.” The band of sympathizers protecting the pacifist Cathars were allowed to go free provided they pledged to stop supporting heresy and swore allegiance to the king of France.
The Château de Montségur that stands today is not the same fortress that existed at the time of these dreadful events. Historians, archeologists, and local storytellers cannot agree on all the details. For example, was the Cathars’ place of martyrdom the prats dels cremats (“field of the burned”), as indicated today by a stele, or was it a neighboring hill? At this magnificent site, so many questions remain unanswered. There’s the legendary Cathar treasure, said to have been held in safekeeping at Montségur before being smuggled out to an unknown destination. And then there are the four men deputed by the community to slip away under the utmost secrecy prior to the ultimate surrender, carrying with them who knows what. Items of treasure? Precious documents? Mysterious keys enabling the Cathar tradition to be revived elsewhere? At Montségur nothing seems impossible. In the last century a team of German researchers came, with the blessing of the Nazi regime, to investigate, convinced that the castle housed the Holy Grail, the famous cup believed to have been used to catch Christ’s blood.
What should we make of the site’s architecture, of the spectacular alignment of the sun’s rays at solstice time, as if its architects had wanted the castle to function as a kind of astronomical calendar? And doesn’t its floor plan reflect the constellation of Boötes, with the donjon representing the star Arcturus? Is it also mere chance that “Cant del Boièr” (Song of the Herdsman) remains one of the most popular folk songs in the Occitanian canon, with some people reading into its words a coded message addressed to future generations?
“After seven hundred years the bay tree will flower again”—and with it, no doubt, the Cathar faith. Thus were the words of the troubadour in the Occitania of old. Or was it the last of the perfecti to be burned at the stake? Or even a poet born generations later? Basically, nobody knows. It is even possible that the bay tree could be an olive tree, and that the date is regularly adjusted so that it never loses its relevance. No matter. The legend remains perplexing enough for visitors to be drawn in by its verses while contemplating the ruins of what the inquisitors called “Satan’s synagogue” – but never quite managed to utterly destroy.
Hill of Crosses (Meškuičiai, Šiauliai – Lithuania)
Crosses have been accumulating on this small hill since the 14th century, when Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire occupied the nearby city of Šiauliai. New crosses tend to appear during periods of occupation or unrest as symbols of Lithuanian independence. This was particularly evident during a peasant uprising against Russian control in 1831, when people began placing crucifixes in remembrance of missing and dead rebels. By 1895, there were 150 large crosses on the site. In 1940, the number had grown to 400.
During the Soviet occupation, which lasted from 1944 to 1991, the Hill of Crosses was bulldozed three times. Each time, locals and pilgrims returned to put up more crosses. The site achieved worldwide fame when Pope John Paul II visited in 1993 to thank Lithuanians for their enduring symbol of faith.
There are now approximately 100,000 crosses on the hill. The faithful are welcome to add their contribution, in whatever form they wish—a crucifix made of Legos recently joined the collection.
A disturbing sight awaits hikers exploring the forest above the village of Želízy in Czechia. Looking out over the Kokořínsko nature reserve, two enormous demonic faces carved from the native stone stare back with empty eyes.
Created by the renowned Czech sculptor Václav Levý in the mid-19th century, the nearly 30-foot-tall sandstone heads are known as Certovy Hlavy, or “the Devil Heads,” and they have been a local attraction for generations. Now suffering slightly from the ravages of time and weather, the monstrous faces have grown less distinct over time—but no less creepy.
Beneath the suburban Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City is a network of tunnels that served as a home, air raid shelter, weapon storage facility, and supply route for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. For years, thousands of people effectively lived underground, only emerging after dark to gather supplies. It was a grim existence—the air was stale, the food and water scarce, and malaria spread fast through the claustrophobic, insect- and vermin-infested passages.
Construction on the tunnels began in the 1940s, as Vietnam fought to gain its independence from France. By the 1960s, the network stretched to over 100 miles (161 km). Tiny tunnel entrances, concealed beneath leaves on the jungle floor, required bodily contortion to squeeze into. To guard against enemy infiltration, the tunnel maintainers incorporated traps, such as dead-end passages and revolving floor panels that sent enemies tumbling into pits of sharpened bamboo. Should a foe make it past these snares and into the underground city, the Viet Cong might respond with a handful of scorpions or a well-aimed snake to the face.
Large sections of the tunnels are gone, having collapsed or been destroyed, but a preserved section, enlarged to fit larger tourist bodies, is open to the public. Visits end with the seemingly inappropriate opportunity to fire AK-47s and M-16s at a shooting range.
Kjeragbolten is a boulder wedged in a mountain crevasse, 3,228 feet (984 m) above the ground. It is a favored spot for BASE jumpers, who hurl themselves from the cliff toward the spectacular fjord below. Visitors without vertigo are welcome to step onto the boulder for a unique photo opportunity—there are no fences restricting access.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Longyearbyen, Svalbard – Norway)
A winter night in Longyearbyen lasts four months. In the ice-covered mountains, the darkness is broken only by a slim concrete building that emits a pale blue glow as it overlooks the 1,000-resident town. The simple structure offers no hint as to what’s protected inside: a collection of seeds that could save humanity.
Due to the loss of genetic diversity among commercially cultivated crops, which tend to be grown from clonal monocultures, many worldwide food crops are at risk of disease. Mutated strains of fungus, or a new bacterium, could potentially wipe out an entire world crop in a matter of months, causing massive food shortages. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was established by the Norwegian government in 2008 to function as a sort of genetic safe-deposit box.
The facility has the capacity to conserve 4.5 million seed samples. Under the current temperature conditions in the vault, which are similar to those in a kitchen freezer, the seed samples can remain viable to begin new crops for anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 years.
Svalbard was chosen as the location because it is tectonically stable and its permafrost provides natural refrigeration in case of a power failure. There is no permanent staff at the seed bank, but it is monitored constantly using electronic surveillance. Access to the vaults, open only to employees, requires passing four locked doors protected by coded access keys.
When Icelandic member of parliament Árni Johnsen escaped unharmed from a car crash in 2010, he knew whom to credit for his survival: elves. After rolling five times, the politician’s SUV came to rest beside a 30-ton boulder. Johnsen, believing that multiple generations of elves called that boulder home, concluded that they used their magic to save him. When roadwork later required the removal of the boulder, he claimed it for himself, transporting it to his home to ensure the elves would continue to watch over him.
Johnsen’s beliefs are not unusual. According to Icelandic folklore, thousands of elves, fairies, dwarves, and gnomes—collectively known as “hidden people”—live in rocks and trees throughout the country. It is no wonder, then, that the world’s only elf school is located in Reykjavík.
Historian Magnús Skarphéðinsson, who has spent decades documenting people’s encounters with elves, established the school in 1991. Classes focus on the distinguishing characteristics of Iceland’s 13 varieties of hidden people. The school also offers five-hour classes for travelers, which include a tour of Reykjavík’s elf habitats. Students receive a diploma in “hidden people research.”
Skarphéðinsson has never seen an elf. His knowledge of their appearance and behavior comes from the hundreds of testimonies he has collected from people who claim to have made contact with hidden people.
Though Skarphéðinsson has devoted 30 years to the subject and considers himself the foremost authority on elves, he maintains a sense of humor about it all. At the end of class, he serves homemade coffee and pancakes and tells stories about the people who come up to him to say, “I swear I’m not on drugs, but I saw the strangest thing . . .”