“Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon; Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels, All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea…”
–from The Tragedy of King Richard the Third by William Shakespeare (1597).
In what must have been one of the most terrifying moments of their lives, Johannes Kelpius and his seafaring band of pilgrims known as the “Church of the Woman in the Wilderness” received a grave instruction from the sailors aboard their America-bound vessel. The year was 1694. “Commend your souls to the Lord,” their hosts shouted above the raging tempest, “we shall go down!” Fortunately, Kelpius and his stout-hearted compatriots survived the ordeal and landed safely in the New World, eventually going on to found a spiritual community at Wissahickon Creek in modern-day Pennsylvania. They, like other transatlantic voyagers before them succeeded in braving the perils of the deep to seek a fortune in a hoped-for utopia. What was it that got them through their journey? Kelpius sums it up nicely in his diary: “Faith, which conquers the world and its elements.”
This is one of the ways man has continuously regarded his relationship with the ocean and its potentially fatal caprices. Ancient mythographers spoke of heaven-sent megafloods, tsunami-like cataclysms that destroyed civilisations (like those at Ogygia and Atlantis) in mere moments. Later, shipmasters from London to Genoa navigated the uncharted and awe-inspiring waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, sailing into worlds beyond their wildest dreams.
Armed with cannons and blunderbusses, they steered their galleons to the ends of the earth and—in their unbridled ambition—sometimes became virtually indistinguishable from corsairs and other pelagic ne’er-do-wells. Nevertheless, their discoveries and internecine interactions with other cultures fueled their superstitions and resulted in new anthologies of hero-tales. For centuries their shanties vivified table-talk in shoreside taverns around the globe. And so, in the pre-Modern mind, the ever-heaving, shimmering main only expanded its mythic kingdom. Tritons and oceanids danced upon the face of the deep, while Krakens and ghost-ships obliterated unsuspecting vessels.
In some sense, their stories illustrate the precarious position of man amidst the strange, Protean currents of life. At sea, every mortal becomes an Odysseus, completely at the mercy of the typhonic forces of nature. Nothing is certain on a transmarine adventure. Each expedition has its Calypsos, its Circes, its Cyclopes. Collectively they are an Adamastor of sorts, capable of damning an entire armada to Davy Jones’ Locker. Only inner strength, as demonstrated by Kelpius, can effect the sea-change necessary to evade this fate.
This issue seeks to offer a spyglass with which one can (like a captain of old) espy the thrills of the high seas. The following vignettes depict the human condition as a long-suffering struggle against wind and wave: the spirit within versus the primordial powers without.
Arguably, the one true fare of “Golden Age” pirates was salmagundi, a hearty mishmash of meats and vegetables that dates back to Renaissance times. In a 2014 article in National Geographic, Rebecca Rupp tells us that this dish was the “closest we may get to a genuine pirate dish”.
A concise recipe for the fibre-packed ragout appears in Mary Smith’s The complete house-keeper and professed cook (1786):
Plato, Storm-Raiser of Montego Bay
According to tradition, the prototypical thaumaturgist was a Prospero of the highest order, a magus who, to use the words of Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, was believed to possess empire over “seasons and elements”. Plato, a Jamaican thief and reputed “professor of Obi” was reportedly one such man. In The Wonders of the West Indies (1856), Theodora Lynch recounts his semi-legendary biography. She describes him as devilish, but ruggedly handsome former slave and bandit captain. Much like the Apulian brigand Don Ciro, Plato had a reputation as a powerful sorcerer. Nonetheless, his Achilles’ heel was his affinity for rum.
Ultimately a drunken night out led to his capture and execution. However, so the story goes, Plato applied his psychic influence and knowledge of weather-magic to achieve two posthumous miracles. First, Plato conjured up one of the fiercest storms in Caribbean history, a tropical hurricane that in 1780 ravaged much of western Jamaica. Next, Plato’s spirit invaded the body of his executioner, who despite receiving medical treatment, “withered” away shortly after Plato’s death.
Oddo, Dread Sea-King of Denmark
Legend has it that Oddo was a bonafide Viking cutthroat, a sorcerous tyrant who ruthlessly drowned fleets of ships with the aid of the black arts. His proficiency in this craft was such that he “rov’d up and down the deep Sea, without the help of a Ship”. Moreover, Oddo’s dominance of the wind and sea made him a bane to his Northmen foes, but (as is often the case with near-omnipotent magicians) he succumbed to the cunning craft of a rival trickster. In the twelfth-century Gesta Danorum, Saxo Grammaticus writes that the Scandinavian mage was outwitted by Erik the Eloquent, a royal councillor to the Danish king Frothi III. Using a combination of cunning artifice and espionage, Erik sabotaged Oddo’s ships. They sank beneath the waves so quickly that it was believed Erik had supernatural control over the sea.
The Cannibal Merman of the Moluccas
The following tale derives from the eighteenth-century work Les Mille et Un Jour: Contes Persans (also known as the Persian Nights) by orientalist François Pétis de La Croix. Similar to the Arabian Nights, the Persian Nights purports to be a collection of oral folktales. This particular story involves a horrifying ordeal experienced by Aboulfaoauris, a Sinbad-like mariner and his fellow seamen. Their voyage through the South Pacific takes a turn for the worst in the Strait of Molucca (near modern-day Indonesia) as they make their way through hic dracones territory. The exact formulation that La Croix uses is “dans des mers inconnues” (in unknown seas).
The sailors notice a naked “man” hanging onto driftwood and swiftly rescue him. He has a monstrous appearance: tiger-eyes, sharp teeth, and long nails. In a flagrant rejection of hospitality, their guest proceeds to eat the crew out of house and home. He devours whatever is thrown in front of him and then turns on a few servants. Fearing for their lives, the shipmates strike him with their swords but the monster only laughs and reveals that their weapons are powerless against him. Fortunately, their living nightmare ends with an apparent deus ex machina. A “Rokh” (a gargantuan bird of prey) suddenly appears in a thundercloud and swoops down on their man-eating captor. The following climactic battle ensues:
The Siren Academy of Eloquence
Sorcery, so it would seem, is not only about glamour, guile, and root-work, it’s also an enterprise that involves the aural manipulation of words. In this sense, the sirens as expert chanteuses could (according to one revisionist mythology) represent a cautionary magic tale. In the notes to his translation of Homer’s Odyssey, Alexander Pope claims that the Sirens were queens of certain islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea. As such, they were the immediate patronesses of an academy of “eloquence” and the “liberal arts” near modern-day Massa Lubrense. The students of this institution supposedly used their education to subvert governments. This truth, namely that an early intelligentsia used their erudition to subjugate others, was (according to Pope) “transformed” into the myth of Sirens as beguiling deceivers.
The Shark-Charmers of Sri-Lanka
Certainly music-making and poetry can be construed as magical or at least, quasi-magical arts. Historically, “high magic” ritualists sibillated rhythmic “barbarous names” in their ceremonies with the hope that they might attract or expel unseen entities. To a certain extent, music in folk culture fulfilled a similar purpose. For example, the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher observed that Sicilian fishermen lured swordfish to their boats with song. This observation is no doubt one of countless witness reports of literal “animal magnetism”.
But the shark-charmers (or more precisely “sea-binders”) of Old Ceylon, so it has been asserted, were of a slightly different order. They were employed by pearl-divers and their magic reportedly consisted in transferring a sort of confidence which acted as a piscine deterrent. They also received a stipend from the government, a privilege rarely enjoyed by modern magicians. Did these enchanters really have the power to bind the seas? Observers certainly attested to their faultless track-records in preserving lives. However, much can be said about magic as the prudent use of not easily detected subtleties. In this case, etic recorders of shark-charming practises would naturally be oblivious to certain contrivances.
See what Thinker’s Garden Fantasts are doing this summer!
- WORLDWIDE: Release of Darragh Mason Field’s City of Djinn video. Where: Youtube. When: 6 July. Who: Featuring Darragh Mason Field.
- LONDON, UK: Enchanted Woolwich dusk wander & storytelling (with Living London). Where: Meet at George V DLR When: 8 July. Who: Featuring London Dreamtime.
- LONDON, UK: Wild Hunt, Dark Woods secret ruin walk. Where: TBA, South East London When: 27 August. Who: Featuring London Dreamtime.
- UKRAINE: Pop-up tour of Kiev and Chernobyl. Where: Eight-day trip starts at Hotel Salut, Kiev. When: 26 August-5 September. Who: Tour by Darmon Richter.
- EDINBURGH, UK: Glass Mountain exhibition. Where: The Scottish Gallery. When: 6-30 September. Who: Featuring Barry McGlashan.
- LONDON, UK: River Thames: Legend, myth, and magic talk. Where: TBA, Riverside location near Erith Library When: 16 September. Who: Featuring London Dreamtime.
- BULGARIA: Bulgaria Arkitektour. Where: Seven-day trip starts in Sofia. When: 18-24 September. Who: Tour by Darmon Richter.
- PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC: Lecture on Jung, Tolkien, and the Imaginal Realm for the International Transpersonal Conference. Where: Top Hotel Praha. When: 28 September-1 October. Who: Talk by Becca Tarnas.
- MONTARA, CALIFORNIA: One Man Show. Where: Borsini-Burr Gallery. When: 30 September. Who: Show by Michael Parkes.
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5. De La Croix, François Pétis, The Thousand and One Days: Persian Tales. Vol. 2. Translated by Ambrose Philips. London: J. and R. Tonson, 1765.
6. Frazer, James. Folk-lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend, and Law. Vol. 2. London: Macmillan and Co., 1918.
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11. Rupp, Rebecca. “Eat Like a Pirate,” National Geographic. August 19, 2014. http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/19/eat-like-a-pirate.
12. Sachse, Julius Friedrich. The German Pietists of provincial Pennsylvania: 1694-1708. Philadelphia: Julius Sachse, 1895.
13. Schwartz, Stuart. Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
14. Smith, Mary. The Complete House-keeper and Professed Cook. Newcastle: S. Hodgson, 1786.
15. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard III. London: Valentine Sims, 1597.