“Those mighty hills, so shadowy, so sublime, as rather to belong to heaven than earth…to me they seemed the barriers of a world…”
–Italy: A Poem by Samuel Rogers (1830)
High above the clouds, amongst oases of pine and ice, lie the wonderlands of Earth’s lost age. The ancients believed that these tramontane backcountries of snow-capped peaks and airy vales were peopled with fearsome megafauna and witch folk. Their tales speak of devil-worshippers and fire-breathing dragons cohabiting amidst the vestiges of a world not yet forgotten by the eldritch gods. Like the haunts of the Greek god Pan, these hinterlands were said to be a realm of savage terror, populated by a dangerous company of fell-beings. Volatile and ruthless, like the renowned “Riphean” gryphons, they vigilantly stood watch over nature’s lofty Edens and eyries, stalking mankind’s upward wanderings in the mountains.
This issue surveys the lore of mountaineers and highlanders—they who dared to tread in the glaciated spaces between heaven and earth.
Ambrosia and amrita were the respective pick-me-ups of the Greek and Rigvedic gods. For the most part, these immortality-conferring drinks (no doubt whipped up in some sky bar encircled by aureoles) were the exclusive refreshments of deities. Outside the world of myths however, humans developed their own elixir of life, sourcing it from the bodies of the longest-lived titans on Earth. In the past, this hardy drink was described as “a decoction of fir-tops”.
First popularised in the 1700s, this beverage (also known as spruce beer) was originally the seaman’s easy fix, a refreshing medicinal remedy for scurvy. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century doctors praised it as a cure-all for vitamin-deficient travellers. To make it, one had to boil the bark, cones, or twigs of coniferous trees (usually pines and firs) and let the concoction ferment with molasses and yeast. The beer could then be flavoured with infusions of wormwood, horseradish root, orange juice, lemon, or mustard seed. The following recipe is from the thirteenth edition of Domestic Cookery (1869) by Elizabeth Lea:
Alpine and Carpathian Dragons
- The man whom British writer Norman Douglas dubbed “prince of the dragon-finders” was a Swiss doctor named Johann Jacob Scheuchzer. Like the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, another dragon-finder, Scheuchzer believed the alpine terrain around Lucerne to be the natural domain of dragons. In 1723 he published his scientific research in a four-book study entitled Ouresiphoitēs Helveticus.
- Scheuchzer was not the only Early Modern scholar to seriously consider the question of flying serpents. In the late seventeenth-century, Johann Paterson Hayn and Henri Vollgnad produced sketches and monographs of bones (see above) that seemed to confirm the existence of dragons in the Carpathian Mountains. Hayn’s study is a catalogue of Hungarian dragons, while Vollgnad’s is a study of the dragons of Transylvania. Their specimens were later proven to be fossils of primeval cave bears.
The Storm-Raising Lake Pavin
- For over four hundred years, Lake Pavin in the Auvergne region of central France was thought to be the lair of devils and the locale of all kinds of hellish happenings. Mythographers frequently claimed that the lake could summon anomalous hailstorms and raise tsunami-like waves at will. These tales, which appear to be unique to the locality of Besse-en-Chandesse, were recently the focus of a book co-edited by Michel Meybeck, an emeritus professor at the University of Paris VI. Presenting geological facts that confirm some of the stranger rumours about Lake Pavin, Meybeck offers an evidence-based theory that identifies elements of the lake’s folklore with actual volcanic activity.
The Demon Fortress of Norcia
- In his Miti, leggende e superstizioni del medio evo (1893), Italian folklorist Arturo Graf mentions an intriguing tale that was first recorded by a fourteenth-century monk named Pierre Bersuire. Bersuire had apparently heard of a demon-haunted lake near Norcia, the infamous capital of sorcery and witchcraft in the Apennine Mountains. This lake was surrounded by walls on all sides and guarded by custodians to prevent ambitious necromancers from “consecrating” their magic books to the spirits of the deep. Every year, villagers had to sacrifice a living man to the spirits beyond the wall. If the townspeople failed to produce an annual blood tribute, the beings conjured tempests to ravage the region.
See what Thinker’s Garden Fantasts are doing in February and March!
- WORLDWIDE: Serialization of Rasputina, a digital graphic novel. Where: Rasputina.net. When: Ongoing. Who: Published by Darmon Richter and Diana Naneva.
- LONDON, UK: Talk on the personal magic of Charles Godfrey Leland. Where: The Old King’s Head, Borough High Street. When: 9 February. Who: Talk by Jonah Locksley, curator of The Thinker’s Garden and Godfrey’s Almanack.
- LONDON, UK: Ghost Walk. Where: Secret location in Hampstead. When: 24 February. Who: Featuring London Dreamtime.
- BILLERICAY, UK: Essex Book Festival Talk. Where: Billericay Library, High Street When: 9 March. Who: Featuring Essie Fox.
1. Bonney, George Thomas. The Alpine Regions of Switzerland and the Neighbouring Countries: A Pedestrian’s Notes on Their Physical Features, Scenery, and Natural History. London: 1868.
2. Cuvier, Georges. Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes,: Contenant les ruminans, les onguiculés et les reptiles fossilles. Vol . 4. Paris: 1854.
3. Douglas, Norman. Old Calabria. Boston: 1915.
4. Gostling, Frances. Auvergne and its People. New York: 1911.
5. Graf, Arturo. Miti, leggende e superstizioni del medio evo. Vol 2. Torino: 1893.
6. Lea, Elizabeth. Domestic cookery, useful receipts, and hints to young housekeepers, 13th edition. Baltimore: 1869.
7. Lind, James. A Treatise of the Scurvy in Three Parts: Containing an Inquiry into the Nature, Causes, and Cure of that Disease. Edinburgh: 1753.
8. Rogers, Samuel. Italy: A Poem. London: 1830.