Thursday, December 27, 2012

Creature of the Month - The Berkeley Toad by Dr. Bob Curran

In many folklore traditions, the toad is something of an ambivalent creature. On the one hand, it is considered to be repellent and often becomes a symbol of foulness and evil – perhaps its very appearance hints at it being malignant and poisonous. And yet on the other hand <and in many Eastern cultures> it is associated with wisdom and “knowing”. Toads are thought to have lived for many centuries and in that time have acquired much knowledge. It was therefore considered to be the wisest of creatures and parts of its body could be used for special purposes. For example, a dried toad’s tongue might be used to incite either love or lust in a woman whilst a bone from its leg might be used to “calm fevers” of various sorts.  To this end several local Toad Fairs, were held in parts of Dorset in England at which parts of toads or tiny statues of toads were sold as a protection against or cure for various ailments. |Live toads were also sold and it was said that such a creature, worn in a muslin bag about the neck was an infallible cure for scrofula or King’s Evil. Sometimes the head of a toad would be put into a bag and placed against the patient’s bare chest which they would then have to carry under their clothing for a specified time. No illness or fever could then cause them harm. Furthermore, when cut open, toads supposedly contained a small object known as a Toadstone. When ground down and mixed into a drink, this substance was an infallible antidote for all known poisons <including the bite of another toad>. Materials purporting to be Toadstones were readily on sale in places such as Stalbridge in Dorset. Somewhere in remote England or in some distant part of Continental Europe, it was believed, there was a toad with a massive jewel in its skull. If an individual could acquire that jewel, he or she would also hold all the knowledge of the world including the words that God had used to fashion reality. Ancient European alchemists were supposed to hunt for that jewel during medieval times as it would also confer immortality on whoever found it.

It was also believed that carrying the bones of a toad would give the individual power over other animals. In Cambridgeshire in England a secret society of Toadmen was formed and it was said that its members had power over any horse and could make it do whatever they wished. The mystery of how they acquired this power remains a secret but it was thought to involve the bones of a toad sewn into their clothing. 

However, the toad was also associated with evil and many witch cases, both in England and in Europe, cited witches and wizards keeping the creature as a ‘familiar’.  This meant that in Black Magic circles, the toad was actually the embodiment of the Devil. The bones of the creature it was believed, could be used in spells to summon up thunderstorms – this was a particular feature of Scottish witchcraft. It was thought too that, under diabolic influence, certain toads could grow until they became monsters. This was probably a result of seeing the creature in a bloated condition at the end of the summer and allowing rural imaginations to work. The toad then, was a complex creature, combining elements of both good and absolute evil. 

Perhaps one of the most famous of these “monsters” comes once again from England. It is the famous Berkeley Toad and its legend was widely known in the Middle Ages. Berkeley is a rural market town in Gloucestershire, standing on the banks of the River Severn. It is a very old settlement and it has a curious history particularly relating to witchcraft. In the time after the Norman Conquest of England, there was a famous “witch” living there who was widely known and feared across the countryside. She may have been no more than an augur or soothsayer <prophetess> but her reputation was such that is said that when she died, the Devil himself came from hell for her and dragged her away with him. A good place then to have a story concerning a monstrous Toad connected to it. 

There seems to be little doubt that the Toad actually existed. In the chancel of St. Mary’s Church in Berkeley, there is the curious carving of a large toad adorning the tomb of the important Berkeley family, the local landowners of the area. Beneath it are the carvings of the heads of two small children. According to a local legend, a monstrous toad-like creature emerged from a local “mire” <swamp> in the Middle Ages and rampaged through the country. It devoured two small children belonging to the Berkeley family who were caught up in its path.  The toad was eventually killed but the deaths of the two infants are commemorated on the tomb.

The Church, however, is not the only place where a carving of the Toad may be found. In the Morning Room of nearby Berkeley Castle <which was the seat of the family> there is a similar carving, said to be of a creature which once lived in the Castle dungeons. A collection of notes and stories, collected by a former land steward, James Herbert Cooke, writing in the early 1600s also alludes to that tale. His notes were transcribed by one of his successors, John Smyth of Nibley in the 19thcentury. Citing Smyth’s words in the original English, he states:

Out of a dungeon in the likeness of a deep, broad well, going steeply down in the middle of the Dungeon Chamber in the said Keep, was <so tradition tells> drawn forth a Toad, in the time of King Henry the Seventh, of incredible Bignes. Which in the deep, dry dust in the bottom thereof had doubtless lived there divers hundreds of years, whose portraiture in just dimension as it was then to me affirmed by divers aged persons. I saw, about 48 years agone, drawn in colors upon the Door of the Great Hall and upon the utter side of the stone porch leading into that Hall, since by the pargettors or pointers of that wallwashed out or outworn with time which in breadth was more than a foot, nere 16 inches and in length more. Of which monstrous and outgrown beast, the inhabitants of the town and in the neighbor villages round about, fable many strange and incredible wonders; making the greatness of this toad more than would fill a peck. Yea, I have heard some who looked to have belief , say from the report of their Fathers and Grandfathers that would have filled a bushel or strike, and to have been many years fed with flesh and garbage from the butchers; but this is all the truth I know or dare believe”

Whether or not Smyth’s words are true and there was some sort of monstrous toad-thing kept in the dark dungeons of Berkeley Castle during the reign of Henry VII, over the years the central story has become greatly embellished and there are many variations of it. Some accounts state that the Toad was simply “a wonder” and that some nobles traveled many miles to see it. Other variants say that at some point, the creature broke free and “went on the rampage” through the area, creating mayhem and destruction – even devouring several individuals in its path. It was finally killed by men-at-arms from the Castle itself and its monstrous body burned. Another variant of this tale states that it was driven into a nearby swamp and simply disappeared. And, of course, yet another version says that it was raised by Black Magic and simply returned to the Devil from whom it came. The potent legend, in all its variations, has continued right down until the present day and it is now possible to buy representations of the creature, both in glass and metal as ornaments and as jewelry boxes and as bedside containers or decorative pieces.

And if it is not true, then where has such a legend come from?  The story, as with the idea of the Toad, is certainly an old one and may even predate the time of King Henry VII. It may go back into pagan times in England and signal some form of race memory <as perhaps many such legends do> of a prehistoric time when the toad – or something like it – was worshiped as a god. There have been hints and whispers of such worship down the centuries, some of which have found their way into the works of such horror and fantasy writers as H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

There is an old legend – no more than an unsubstantiated folktale – that during Roman times, an unnamed General serving with the Legions in Eastern Europe came across a strangely carved door at the end of a ravine, somewhere in the lands of the Dacians far beyond the River Danube. He had been leading an expedition against the Gitae <Dacians> and had driven them back to a mountain tract <possibly the foothills of the Carpathians> where they entered a shallow valley and found the door in the wall of a cliff. It seemed, according to the legend, to be made out of some unknown metallic material which could not be penetrated and was carved with the face of a monstrous toad-like entity which stared out at them with blank eyes. The superstitious soldiers drew back but the General went up and struck the door with the hilt of his sword. It rang hollow inside. Local tradition later told him that this was supposedly the entrance to some underground pagan temple where a being, the face of which was represented on the door itself, was worshiped with human sacrifice. The location of the valley where the door was found has never been disclosed so perhaps it is still there, waiting.

A similar type of story comes from Ireland and also has to do with prehistoric gods. In northern County Cavan, in the district of Tullyhaw, it is said was once a great open area with a ring of stones at its center. This was known as Mag Sleacht <the Plain of Adoration> where the ancient god Crom Cruach <or Cruicah> - the Bowed God of the Mounds – was worshipped. The circle was very ancient and according to some traditions was so old that it had partly sunk into the earth by the time St. Patrick came to view it in the 5th century. In the centre of the circle <twelve stones placed at varying significant points> was a large stone or “idol”<perhaps a stone sheathes in gold> pertaining to the Cruach. Sometimes a representation of the ancient god was supposed to appear there – sometimes as a bloody head but also sometimes as a kind of toad-like entity, sitting on top of <or slightly above> the stone. When Patrick saw the ancient thing, he was appalled at its pagan aspect and banged his crozier on the ground, causing the twelve stones to sink into the ground, but not the “idol” It remained above ground and was later smuggled, minus its golden covering, across Lough McNean and into south-west County Fermanagh where it still stands today in the corner of a field. Whether or not the ancient god still appears on its crest is another matter but could this legend have inspired Robert E. Howard’s famous Cthulhu Mythos story “The Black Stone”?  And perhaps the legend of the Berkeley Toad disguises some far older truth and more ancient gods.

So what are we to make of the tale of the Toad?  Was there indeed some form of ancient monster dwelling under Berkeley Castle in the early 1500s?  Or does the fable mask some older belief dating back to the early days of Mankind? Perhaps the Berkeley Toad is a much more complex monster than we might initially think.                    

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Assembling an Anomaly with Micah Hanks

We are excited to announce the formal publication of our new release The UFO Singularity from Micah Hanks.  

The false but widespread assumption that a UFO is, of necessity, an alien spaceship is usually the reason the term generates such an exaggerated and confusing range of emotional responses. A recognition of the extraterrestrial hypothesis as being a valid, although unproved, possible explanation worthy of further scientific scrutiny is something entirely different from approaching the subject of UFOs as if this discovery had already been made.
—Leslie Kean, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record

Since my early youth, I admit to being wholly absorbed with all the compelling possibilities that surrounded the UFO mystery. Even the grainiest and least aesthetically impressive black and white photographs that had emerged into the wide and ever-expanding dossier of UFO reports up to that time boasted a certain degree of promise in my young mind. To me, each of those otherwise-unimpressive images, depicting amorphous globs of light and barely discernible shapes coasting through the airspace above our planet, might have held the potential for incredible realities and bold new kinds of life that might have come from, of all places, somewhere outside this little celestial island we call Earth.

It is rather strange to me now, thinking back to those years of eager and hopeful early exploits in the field of ufology, that notions regarding the origins of those strange saucers—at least so far as being from someplace other than outer space—had seldom crossed my mind. Today, things are quite different, and I can state with certainty that the man I would eventually become, equipped with a more complete understanding of the scientific meth­odology that any serious researcher must apply in his or her respective field, has illuminated a number of new potentials in the realm of what UFOs might be. If any­thing, my thought processes regarding the possibilities this complicated mystery may yet afford us have only continued to broaden, especially the further I get from that old notion that UFOs, quite simply, are interstellar spacecraft from another world.

To be fair, the reasoned scientist should not (nor would he in practice) eliminate any possibility on the mere grounds that available evidence seemed to be lack­ing in one particular area or another. For all we know of the UFOs themselves—or the presumption that they are occupied by some kind of physical beings like you or me, for that matter—the ongoing enigma of the flying sau­cers very well may be representative of alien life from some distant star system. Therefore, far be it from me, let alone the staunchest skeptics among us, to hope to derail anyone else’s belief in alien visitation here on Earth. The bottom line is that we simply don’t know what, exactly, we may be dealing with when it comes to UFOs. At present, we only have a few reasonably good ideas.

Based on this fundamental notion that UFOs could either be nothing we have yet imagined, or that they are represented by a variety of different unexplained aerial phenomena, I have long advocated the use of a reasoned, philosophical process of inquiry we might call “specula­tive ufology” for use in their study. Although many in the scientific field lapse into a state of rhetorical cringes and curls at the mere utterance of that word—speculation— there must be some way to proceed with the unraveling of complex mysteries through the use of filling in cer­tain blank areas, so as to ponder a more likely outcome or resolution to any given set of circumstances. Think for a moment of how a skilled mathematician or physicist is given license, by virtue of his trade, to balance equations that are intricate in their difficulty by brainstorming a host of different variables. That is, he will go about the problem-solving process by replacing certain unknown elements with quantities that may, in the end, bring res­olution to a group of numbers arranged in such a way that they represent the complex mysteries surrounding things like time, space, gravity, and the cosmos. At the outset of his inquiry, this brilliant man of science will likely not be equipped with every piece needed to solve the puzzle before him; and thus, he improvises. This sort of educated guesswork is integral to the eventual unraveling of any great and complex mystery our universe may have to offer.

Much the same as math and numbers can be likened to being a universal language of the greater cosmos, the role of the speculative physicist is one who seeks to find “common ground” between disparate elements that exist throughout our reality. Why is it, for instance, that light energy in the form of photons being propelled through space will tend to behave differently in some parts of the universe as opposed to others? Though there may appear to be no physical mass present to influence their behav­ior, the light traveling along in such circumstances can be observed behaving as though there were, in fact, some­thing else there. Hence, such strange and questionable behavior has lead us to the presumption that things like black holes and antimatter must exist, and that the latter of these will likely share the same attractant forces that any “normal” matter would exert in terms of its influence on other objects. This, at least, has become a consensus among many in the scientific community, so far as being the most likely explanation for weird behavior that can be seen out there in deep space, and at times, perhaps even in our own backyard. The great challenge, however (or burden, depending on one’s viewpoint), always lies in the task of confirming such theories, a task that inevitably becomes daunting.

We are cursed with a very limited ability to physi­cally lay our hands on such mysteries as antimatter—and the same goes for things we would perceive as being nor­mal and everyday, such as light energy. We are unable to hold such things in our hands, turning them before our eyes and grasping them like any solid object, in order to observe their most miniscule and clandestine details. But because of this, can we say with certainty that light energy simply does not exist? Can we say that antimatter, despite its elusive nature, is not what we had originally presumed must be exerting its peculiar influences on other aspects of our universe? The modern scientist would scoff at the very proposition, right? And yet, that seems to be precisely how complex issues involving the UFO mys­tery end up being treated.

So why is there such a double standard here? How can bizarre concepts like alternate dimensions and time travel be completely acceptable, but only as long as there is a speculative physicist with a long string of letters after his name who divulges such potentials—and often stand­ing before a camera’s ever-watchful eye, presenting these bold “theories” to an audience of millions in some colorful science-themed television program? As soon as the humble ufologist steps up to the plate and begins to point out the scientific potentials that may surround things like UFO propulsion, or how intelligent life might travel through space, he gets laughed off the stage and called a lunatic. Go back home, freak. And try fitting that tin foil hat a bit tighter next time; you’re going to need it to protect your brain from being fried by those aliens you spend all day thinking about.

Yet unlike antimatter, there have been a number of photographs, videos, and reliable eyewitness testimonies that have emerged throughout the years that illustrate quite clearly how an entire host of intelligently controlled objects have been observed, albeit at sparring intervals, soaring through our skies. And to wit, as addressed ear­lier, these objects have succeeded in garnering atten­tion from intelligence agencies in the United States and elsewhere around the world time and time again. Despite the physical, observable nature of this phenomenon, the bottom line continues to be that, despite any amount of evidence promoting their existence, in large part the sci­entific community still seems to feel that there is little or no scientific merit to continuing UFO studies. After all, what could we possibly learn from the speculative study of things that appear so advanced that we can barely fathom what greater meaning or relevance they may keep for us as a species?

At this time, I suggest we put forth a new, different kind of bold idea: I say to hell with this “holier than thou” attitude toward the act of speculation, which we see so rife amid the greater scientific mainstream. Had Einstein or Oppenheimer never engaged in reasoned speculation, allowing their imaginations to drift away at times on the mere hope of possibility, then the proponents of things such as antimatter and alternate dimensions might instead find themselves employed among the ranks of one of your neighborhood fast food chains. Let’s give credit to some of our very finest speculators where credit is due.

Rather than to place limitations on thought and shy away from reasoned speculation, if we are to take on a greater, more complete understanding of what we call the UFO mystery, we must press on, pushing ahead by asking questions. Occasionally, we must fit variables into the gaps and spaces we uncover, fitting carefully molded ideas into the nooks and crannies of logic much like the steady hand of the mathematician, as he draws lines and symbols upon the powdery surface of his chalkboard. Above all, we must use this logic and reason we obtain to discern what we can from what sparring evidence we have been afforded at this time.

Remembering the words of Spock, Captain Kirk’s unexcitable science advisor aboard the Starship Enter­prise in J.J. Abrams’s 2009 re-visioning of the Star Trek mythos: “Once you have eliminated the impossible, what­ever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The same quote can, in fact, be traced to a much earlier source: none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. Regardless of the origin of the phrase, I’m certain neither character—Spock nor Holmes—would disapprove of the logic I’m advocating here. 

Micah Hanks is a writer and researcher whose work addresses a variety of unexplained phenomena. With regard to UFOs, Hanks has studied the more esoteric realms of the strange and unusual, but also researches cultural phenomena, human history, and, of course, the prospects of our technological future as a species through science and transhumanism. He is author of Magic, Mysticism and the Molecule, and writes for a variety of magazines and other publications such as FATE Magazine, Fortean Times, UFO Magazine, The Journal of Anomalous Sciences, and New Dawn. Hanks has also appeared on numerous TV and radio programs, including Travel Channel’s Weird Travels program, National Geographic’s Paranatural, the History Channel’s Guts and Bolts, CNN Radio, and The Jeff Rense Program. He also produces a weekly podcast that follows his research at his popular Website, Hanks makes his home near Asheville, North Carolina.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Positive News of the Week

Making New Roots

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Paying It Forward

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A Child's Gift - 500 toys

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Magic Foam

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Weird News of the Week

Crystallized Time

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Dogs driving Cars

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Eau de Pizza

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Bondi Beach's Red Sea

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Positive News of the Week

The Beauty in Physics

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An Amazing Gift

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Using Your Power to Keep Technology Flowing

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Sending Cheer in a Letter

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