History News: World’s Oldest Ceremonial Fire?

Atlas Obscura publishes a daily newsletter that is one of the most interesting sites around. Its staff works tirelessly to ferret out odd or unusual places in the world for their brief articles, accompanied by photos and information about how to get there. Today they ran one about a beautiful site of worship in Yazd, Iran, a Zoroastrian temple that houses an Atash Behram (Fire of Victory). Fire and water are the agents of ritual purity, used to produce clean, white ash for ritual purification ceremonies.

This brick Zoroastrian temple holds a fire that has burned for more than 1,500 years. The ancient flame has been kept alive, in various locations, since 470, during the Sassanian Empire. The only temple of its type located outside of India,  it has been situated in Yazd since 1934. Today, the sacred flame burns within a bronze vessel and is protected by a glass wall. Only the temple priests are permitted inside the sanctum, where the flame is fed with dry wood.

In present-day Zoroastrian tradition, adherents bring offerings of pieces of sweet smelling  wood, such as sandalwood, which is received by a priest wearing a cloth over nose and mouth to prevent polluting the fire with the breath. He will enter the sanctuary alone, and, with a pair of silver tongs, place the offering in the fire. He then will use a special ladle to present a small amount of the holy ash to the layperson, who anoints his or her own forehead and eyelids, then takes some ash home for their private rituals.

There are many other features of this interesting and ancient  religious practice, which is quite complex, with plenty of information available on many internet sites. There are three different levels of ceremonial fire for three different purposes, for example, and 16 sources of fire.  It has been enjoyable and edifying to learn about this particular one, which is similar in some respects to the Christian Ash Wednesday.

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It’s a Mystery: The Detective’s Daughter, by Lesley Thomson

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Detective’s Daughter  does not have a straightforward opening, which is off putting to many readers. It reads as a collection of unrelated short stories, and requires some patience until things start to become clearer. These are backstories, and they’re well worth the wait.

On a sunny day in 1981, young mother Kate Rokesmith is found murdered along the banks of the Thames in Hammersmith. Hours later, her little boy, Jonathan, is found huddled at the foot of sculpture he always enjoyed visiting, and police deduce that he probably witnessed to killing, but the trauma leaves him unwilling/unable to answer their questions.  A single witness, a neighbor,  saw the pair head off for their walk, but otherwise there is a frustrating dearth of information. The police suspect the husband, but lack any semblance of evidence, and the case goes cold. This is one of the cases that has  obsessed former DCS Terry Darnell for thirty years, even into retirement. When he dies suddenly of a heart attack, his semi-estranged daughter, Stella, owner of a professional cleaning business, sets about clearing his house, and a box  of papers she was sorting through indicates that he was actively pursuing the case. When she hires  Jack Harmon to serve a cleaner to her new dentist, Stella finds him decidedly quirky, but surprisingly effective and efficient. It isn’t long before he becomes as interested as she is in the unsolved crime. What ensues is a distinctly cerebral mystery that grows harder and harder to put down. Along the way, Stella learns things about her dad as well as herself that she had never before considered or even recognized. More than a simple police procedural, The Detective’s Daughter is a book about relationships, with vivid, realistic characters, eerie surprises, and several genuinely suspenseful moments.

While reading this novel, I did a web search about the setting, finding many evocative photos that helped bring the story to life. Finished the book this afternoon, and now I’m off to start Ghost Girl, the second book in this series, eager to know more about how Stella and Jack develop as characters. Can’t wait!

It’s a Mystery: Under a Dark Sky, by Lori Rader-Day

Under a Dark Sky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Still reeling from her husband’s death nine months earlier, Eden Wallace finds among his papers a reservation for the lodge at Michigan’s Dark Sky Park, a star gazing resort, scheduled for what would have been their wedding anniversary. Eden is petrified by darkness, but decides to face her fears by keeping the reservation and facing up to them at the park. She’s dismayed and disheartened from the moment she arrives and discovers that the accommodation is comprised of individual suites with shared public spaces. A mini college reunion has also been booked, by a 6-member coterie of former students seeking to rekindle their once-close friendships. They’re no happier than Eden is about the situation, and while they must accept her, they treat her with undisguised hostility. Eden chooses to stay overnight and depart for home early the next morning. Sounds like a plan, until, in the middle of the night, she is awakened by screams emanating from the kitchen. One of the men is lying dead on the floor with a screwdriver protruding from his neck. Now, no one is free to leave.

This is a small town with a small police force inexperienced in investigating murder. They are suspicious of all of the lodge’s residents, who are all suspicious of one another. During the course of their inquiries, it will become apparent that all of them have their own deep, disturbing secrets, Eden included. Watching the cat and mouse game unfold provides surprises for the reader and for the characters themselves. This is an intriguing mystery, narrated solely in first person by Eden, who arrived overwrought and grows ever more so as the tension ratchets up. Each character, whether police or suspects, are finely drawn, believable in their actions and reactions, with personalities all their own, and this is the strength of this novel. The suspects in particular must come to terms with their pasts, which, of course, some accomplish better than others. Parts of the narrative grow repetitive and verge on hysteria, and probably could have been edited down a bit, but otherwise, this is a reasonably tight, well crafted plot that holds attention right to its ending.

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It’s a Mystery: The Secret, Book, and Scone Society, by Ellery Adams

The Secret, Book, & Scone Society (Secret, Book, & Scone Society #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although it may not be official, ever since Fried Green Tomatoes, circa 1991, became a hit book and movie, a growing sub genre under the heading “cozy mysteries” appears to have developed. Most of these books sport catchy and cutesy titles (Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society et al), revolve around a reasonably complex local mystery, and feature small teams of flawed but strong and charming women who are determined to set things right. Sometimes a touch of magical realism is present to spice up the plot. The Secret, Book, and Scone Society, by Ellery Adams, fits squarely into this category.

The title derives from the businesses and past histories of four women protagonists living in Miracle, North Carolina, all of whom are trying to forget painful pasts and get on with their lives as best they can. Although they patronize each other’s shops, they don’t really bond until a man, a newcomer to town who briefly crosses paths with them, winds up dead on the town’s railroad tracks. Was he murdered, did he jump, or was he pushed? This questions bothers them as individuals, and in the immediate aftermath of the death, they decide to band together to discover, or uncover, the truth. During this process, the back story of each woman emerges as they develop trust, understanding, and support for each other. The mystery, involving murder and fraud, serves as the vehicle through which Ellery Adams develops her central characters, who become relatable and loveable in spite of, and because of their all too human flaws. While ancillary characters do lean toward the stereotypical, and the mystery is not all that difficult to solve, the main quartet and the actions they take are more than strong enough to maintain the interest of readers to the end.

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History News: Lost Sword of Robert Gould Shaw Located

Anyone who’s watched the Civil War movie “Glory” knows about the courage of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first all-black volunteer units to ever fight in an American war. Anyone who hasn’t seen it really should. After he died with his men during the 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was buried in a mass grave alongside them. For several years, his sword, which bears his initials, was considered lost, but eventually was recovered in South Carolina and given to the Shaw family, only to disappear again in the following decades. In 2017, when sorting through the attic of their Massachusetts home, descendents of Shaw’s sister came across it and donated it, along with family papers, to the Massachusetts Historical Society. Today the sword can be seen by prior request.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Information from Mass. Historical: Regulation Infantry sword made for the American market by Henry Wilkinson, Pall Mall, London. Number 12506 with gilt HW seal; blade proofed May 23,1863. British Pattern 1845/54 Officer’s Sabre. Steel blade, etched decoration on both sides with initials R.G.S. below a displayed US Eagle near hilt on back of blade which is slightly curved and unfullered. Normally, this sword would carry an openwork “Crowned VR” cypher in the oval cartouche of the knuckle guard, but made for a non-British customer this feature is left solid and is textured with matt punching. The chamois bag given with the sword is the remains of a “slip,” a soft bag in which one would keep a sword (and its garniture) when packed away. Grip of sharkskin banded in silver wire with flat metal ribbon sword knot ending in acorn affixed to hilt.

One of the treasures of American history.

It’s a Mystery: The Ice Princess, by Camilla Lackberg

The Ice Princess (Patrik Hedström, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Modern Noir is not my favorite genre. Although mysteries in this category generally tell compelling stories, they do so in a way that can be disturbing. It’s not the darkness so much as the graphic brutality that bothers me, but if the writing is good enough, I’ll stick with it and skim over the worst of the details. Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess is dark and cold, in keeping with Nordic noir, but considerably less gruesome than many.

Though billed as a mystery, this novel is character rather than plot driven. The police, of course, make an early appearance, but the book’s protagonist is definitely Erica Falck, a biographer who has returned to her childhood home in Fjällbacka, Sweden for the funeral of her parents. Erica stays on to clear up her parents affairs and work on her overdue manuscript in a quiet place, and, as happens to many during the grieving process, begins to reevaluate her own life choices. But her plans are soon disrupted when her childhood friend, the beautiful Alex, is found frozen solid in her  bathtub with slashed wrists. Alex’s family requests that Erica write a piece in memory of their daughter’s life, and she begins by interviewing Alex’s friends. As new information and old memories are stirred up, Erica cannot believe that Alex died by her own hand. When the detective on the case turns out to be Patrik Hedstrom, another school chum, they combine their efforts to discover the truth.

The procedural part of the plot, until the final few chapters, is submerged in a tangle of sub-stories. These include smaller mysteries: why is Erica’s married sister no longer the free spirit she was as a girl? Why did Alex’s family abruptly leave town when the girls were in high school. What happened to the son of Fjallbacka’s wealthiest family abruptly disappear? These threads are intriguing, but there were far too many pages devoted to detailing a personal relationship that threatened to turn a murder mystery into a romance novel. The solution to the mystery was one that readers – at least this reader – could not have hypothesized because some missing clues. Nevertheless, the characters and setting in The Ice Princess were interesting enough to prompt me to try the next book in the series, The Preacher.

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The Edinburgh Witches Well

Back in June, I came across an interesting article on Atlas Obscura, featuring a little noticed spot, near the entrance to the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, where there stands a small drinking fountain. Between the 15th and 18th centuries,  hundreds of women, accused of witchcraft, were executed on this spot, close to what is now Ramsay Garden. Scotland’s King James VI was a devoted persecutor of witches, and during the satanic panic that gripped Europe during that time span, anyone could be accused of using dark magic. Most were women, though regardless of gender all were denied proper trials and subjected to burning at the stake, and in the later years, to hanging.

By 1894, the forward thinking philanthropist, Sir Philip Geddes, commissioned John Duncan to design a small fountain to memorialize the victims.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The small plaque explains the major design elements. Duncan was an admirer of Celtic art and legend, interests that are reflected in his use of dualism to highlight the opposites of good and evil and to show that every story has two sides. features a bronze relief of witches’ heads entangled by a snake, uses dualism to highlight the balance between good and evil and that each story has two sides. The relief displays two heads representing the accused.  There is the image of a Foxglove plant from the centre of which is a coiled snake intertwined around the head of Aesculapius, The God of Medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the Goddess of Health. The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff known as a caduceus, remains a symbol of medicine today. Hygeia as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation represents hygiene. The Foxglove plant used medicinally can also be poisonous depending on dosage; and the image of the serpent imbued with wisdom is also acknowledged as evil. The symbolism of all represents good and evil. The years 1479 and 1722 are shown at upper left and bottom right, and two bolts in the upper corners show the Wiccan symbols of air and water. The hole below the serpent’s head dispensed water.

The trough is sculpted on three sides. The font displays flora with roots beneath the earth and branches above. The left panel depicts the evil eye with frowning eyes and nose; the words ‘the evil eye’ are written below. The right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the words ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.

I love symbolism in art and am very glad this monument is there to commemorate the terrible scourge of the witchcraft delusion. I do wish, however, that the plaque more explicitly condemned what happened there to all those innocent victims.  I also wish that I’d known about the fountain when we visited Edinburgh several years back.