This is Halloween: Zombie

Halloween is pretty much upon us: scary films, crazy costumes and spooky stories. What’s scarier, a vampire or a zombie? Will you dress up as a witch or a werewolf? In this seriesMuriel Bailly profiles a famous Halloween monster every day this week to manifest the myths beneath the masks and make-up.

Zombie

Life and death.

Life and death.

Fact File

  • Distinctive signs:  Decomposing body, voracious appetite
  • Likely to say: “Guh…ohgnh…arg…”
  • Good points: No need for small talk
  • Bad points: Smells like hell
  • Heroes: R (Warm Bodies), Kieren Walker (In the Flesh),
  • Villains: Various (28 Days Later), Various (World War Z), Various (Night of the Living Dead), Various (Cockneys Vs Zombies), Various (Evil Dead), Gage Creed (Pet Semetary), Various (Zombieland), Various (Shaun of the Dead)

Context

Zombies are corpses that have been revived or re-animated, traditionally by witchcraft. They are very common in Haitian folklore and in the Vodou religion. Haitian tales tell of two different types of zombies: the physical one (the body) and an astral one (the soul). Each is missing it’s other half. It is said that sorcerers, called bokors, can trap the astral zombie and bottle it to sell it to clients for good luck or healing purposes.

Vodou beliefs originated in French slavery colonies, particularly in Haiti. Slavery was first introduced to Haiti by Christopher Columbus when he arrived on the Island and set up a fort there in 1492. His first contact with the native population was friendly and they exchanged gifts, but he quickly wrote to Queen Isabella of Spain saying the natives were “tractable, and easily led; they could be made to grow crops and cities.”

A human head dissected, "In memoriam". Acrylic painting by R. Ennis, 2001.

A human head dissected, “In memoriam”. Acrylic painting by R. Ennis, 2001.

During the French colonial period the entire economy of the island was based on slavery and its practice there was known to be extremely cruel. Men and women from Congo, Yoruba and other African ethnic groups were enslaved and brought to Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue) in the 16th and 17th century, bringing with them their own cultural traditions. These beliefs evolved to become the Vodou religion we know today.

Tradition says that Baron Samedi, the Loa (Spirit of Haitian Vodou) of the dead, will gather the spirits from their graves and bring them back to Africa to a heavenly afterlife. The souls of any who offended him during their lives would be left behind as zombies and, therefore, to be slaves forever in the afterlife.

The Haitian zombie tradition was first introduced to the western world during the United States occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934. This is largely thanks to American author William Seabrook’s book The Magic Island, published in 1929. In addition to this book, Seabrook also gained fame for his interest in the occult, tasting human flesh and not disguising his enthusiasm for it (he likened it to veal). Seabrook’s hobbies may explain why pop culture zombies are flesh-eating creatures: the two legends have influenced each other.

Men placing the corpse which they have just disinterred into a sack.

Men placing the corpse which they have just disinterred into a sack.

In the 20th century, reports of people who being turned into zombies by bokors in Haiti were frequent. The most famous example is of Clairvius Narcisse who came home some 18 years after he had been buried by his family. Narcisse fell ill in 1962 and was declared dead by doctors. He was later dug up by bokors and Vodou practitioners and given a concoction to maintain him in a semi-conscious state and made to work on fields along with other zombie-slaves. When the land owner eventually died nobody was there to give the slaves their daily potion to maintain their zombie-like state so Narcisse eventually regained consciousness and walked home.

Incredible stories like this were investigated by Wide Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist who presented a pharmacological case for zombies in the 1983 Journal of Ethnopharmacology. His findings were that people can in fact be changed into zombies using two different powders injected into the bloodstream. The first one is a powerful drug, Tetrodoxin (TTX), which induces paralysis of the muscles and respiratory organs, mimicking death. The second powder is to be administered once the body has been declared dead. It is a dissociative drug, such as datura, that will then bring the individual into a semi-conscious sate. Although the scientific accuracy of Davis’ work has been heavily criticised, he helped popularise the zombie myth in the Western world with two bestseller books: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and Darkness: the Ethnnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988).

Zombie craze

A mythological mirror for slavery at first, the modern image of zombies as flesh-eating monsters appeared in Hollywood movies in for the first time 1968 with George A Romero film, Night of the Living Dead (before that, in films like White Zombie from 1932, the Haitian setting and Voudou are present). Since then, zombies films have spread like…an infection… and they are even the subject of a highly successful and record-breaking television series, The Walking Dead. In the last decade, zombie films seem to offer an ever more gory experience.

They're coming for you.

They’re coming for you.

Such a glut of films have led to certain film makers taking a different angle, resulting in some inventive approaches. Such as in the rom-com-zom Shaun of the Dead; Cockneys Vs. Zombies, featuring slow-moving pensioners in a retirement home trying to outrun slightly slower zombies; and Pontypool, an excellent zombie film without any zombies. From slavery to consumerism, zombies show us the evil our society suffers from and remind us of some of the things we fear most: losing our life, losing our freedom and losing ourselves.

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Read the rest of the series.

This is Halloween: Ghost

Halloween is pretty much upon us: scary films, crazy costumes and spooky stories. What’s scarier, a vampire or a zombie? Will you dress up as a witch or a werewolf? In this seriesMuriel Bailly profiles a famous Halloween monster every day this week to manifest the myths beneath the masks and make-up.

Ghost

A man is confronted by a ghost and a skeleton.

A man is confronted by a ghost and a skeleton.

Fact File

Context

Ghosts are considered to be the soul or spirit of the deceased and can, just like the living, be good and/or bad. In Christianity, the Spirit with a capital S refers to the Holy Spirit and, therefore, God.

The idea of spirits surrounding us is very popular in civilisations that observe veneration of the dead rituals, linked to the belief that the deceased continue to have an afterlife and that they can interact with and influence the lives of the living.

Into the afterlife

For instance, one of the most well-known pieces of literature from Ancient Egypt is The Book of the Dead: a funerary text inscribed in the tomb of the departed and presents all the spells needed to assist the deceased in their journey to the afterlife.

Book of the Dead, Anubis weighing the heart.

Book of the Dead, Anubis weighing the heart.

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is one of the most important annual celebrations dedicated to honouring and remembering passed friends and family members. The rituals have their origin in pre-Columbian culture and they take place over three days, from 31 October until 2 November: on the 31st, children’s spirits are celebrated; on the 1st of November, adult spirits; and finally the 2nd of November is All Soul’s Day when families go to cemeteries to decorate the graves of their relatives.

Sculpture of a human skeleton produced for the Day of the Dead festival at Lake Pátzcuaro, Mexico.

Sculpture of a human skeleton produced for the Day of the Dead festival at Lake Pátzcuaro, Mexico.

In both examples, the living observe specific rituals to ensure their ancestors complete their journey in the afterlife and that the balance between the two worlds is maintained. Spirits are not to be feared as long as they can complete their journey beyond death. It is another matter entirely when they stay behind…

Unfinished business

Pliny the Younger reported ghosts stories, as did many of his contemporaries. For example, Pliny wrote about a haunted house in Athens. To begin with, people could hear the sound of weapons and chains. Subsequently, the inhabitants started reporting the apparition of a filthy, emaciated man wearing chains on his hands and feet. The house was eventually bought by a philosopher, Athenodorus, who had been made aware of the situation but did not consider it to be a deal breaker. On his first evening in the house, Athenodorus saw the ghost and calmly followed him to an outside space that the ghost was indicating. The next day, Athenodorus started digging in the area indicated by the ghost and found the enchained bones of a man. After organising a proper burial for the deceased the ghost was never to be seen again.

Athenodorus rents a haunted house.

Athenodorus rents a haunted house.

This story illustrates a common belief that spirits who stay behind have an agenda. The ultimate goal may be to reach the afterlife, as in Egyptian and Mexican beliefs, but some may have unfinished business. In Christianity this idea is encompassed by purgatory. In order to eventually reach heaven, the souls have to stay behind and expiate their sins in purgatory.

During the Renaissance, a strong interest for the occult (“knowledge of the hidden”) and necromancy (communicating with the deceased) developed, influencing the arts and giving birth to one of the most famous ghosts of English literature: the ghost of Hamlet’s father in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

Hamlet pointing to a ghost and asking Gertrude if she can see it too.

Hamlet pointing to a ghost and asking Gertrude if she can see it too.

GERTRUDE
Whereon do you look?
HAMLET
On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable.
(to GHOST) Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects. Then what I have to do
Will want true color—tears perchance for blood.
GERTRUDE
To whom do you speak this?
HAMLET
Do you see nothing there?
GERTRUDE
Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.

Horace Walpole was greatly influenced by Shakespeare’s play for his own novel, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. The story features fate, enigmatic deaths and animated portraits. This novel is often considered as the first of the Gothic horror genre which made great use of monsters (see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), ghosts (see The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) and other supernatural entities (see Bram Stokers’ Dracula). Gothic literature reinforced the notion of ghosts as spooky, revengeful spirits trapped on earth because of an injustice done to them during their lifetime which seems to persist today.

The conjuring of a ghost.

The conjuring of a ghost.

Modern wraiths

Ghosts, unlike werewolves or vampires, still seem to be less often dismissed by people as mere myths or legends. Many have heard a strange noise when they’re alone in the house or have (usually indirectly) witnessed inanimate objects behaving strangely. Perhaps it’s the comforting idea that loved ones are still with you or the very fact that, with ghosts, “not seeing” can still mean believing. Maybe our imaginations are just as active as they ever were.

The 20th century saw its fair share of ghost stories adapted or written for the big screen, which is still going strong today: from the “bump in the night” spooky B movie tales to more gory depictions in the ’80s, the wave of Japanese ghost horror stories and their Western remakes and, most recently, the found footage or home video style horrors.

Taking advantage of the broad parameters that make up the genre, films have been able to present ghosts in many different ways, from physical manifestations chasing promiscuous teens to invisible malevolent forces wreaking havoc on family homes, from benevolent individuals with unfinished business to entire armies of spirits.

Nightmare on Elm Street

Nightmare on Elm Street

Poltergeist

Poltergeist

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity

Return of the King

Return of the King

The Frighteners

The Frighteners

The Haunting

The Haunting

The Shining

The Shining

Ju-on The Grudge

Ju-on The Grudge

House on Haunted Hill

House on Haunted Hill

Sixth Sense

Sixth Sense

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Read the rest of the series as they become available.

This is Halloween: Vampire

Halloween is pretty much upon us: scary films, crazy costumes and spooky stories. What’s scarier, a vampire or a zombie? Will you dress up as a witch or a werewolf? In this seriesMuriel Bailly profiles a famous Halloween monster every day this week to manifest the myths beneath the masks and make-up.

Vampire

The Vampire, 1893. Edvard Munch. Courtesy of Munch Museum at Oslo.

The Vampire, 1893. Edvard Munch. Courtesy of Munch Museum at Oslo.

Fact file

  • Distinctive signs: Pale skin, sensitive to the sun, fond of drinking blood, sleeps in a coffin, not a fan of garlic
  • Likely to say: “I have crossed oceans of time to find you.”
  • Good points: Is immortal
  • Bad points: Is immortal
  • Heroes: The Cullens (Twilight), Angel (Buffy), John Mitchell (Being Human)
  • Villains: Dracula, Lestat Lincourt (Interview with a Vampire), Nosferatu, The Master (Buffy), Kurt Barlow (‘Salem’s Lot)

Context

When one thinks of vampires, Dracula is likely the first name that comes to mind. With it comes the image of an elegant, charismatic man with an otherworldly presence and pale complexion. Today, Dracula may be the yardstick against whom all other vampires are measured, but it used to be a very different story.

A lamia: a monster capable of assuming a woman's form, said to suck humans' blood; a vampire.

A lamia: a monster capable of assuming a woman’s form, said to suck humans’ blood; a vampire.

Until the 18th century, vampires or their folkloric equivalents were described as swollen and of ruddy or dark appearance. An origin of the vampire myth put forward in a scientific paper in the 1980s is porphyria, a condition affecting the skin, leading to photosensitivity, blisters and necrosis. This was rejected en masse, however. A slightly more convincing case has been made for rabies, although there are still too many inconsistencies to make it the likely inspiration for vampires.

Blood drinking creatures appeared throughout antiquity but the word “vampire” (from the Hungarian vampir) appeared for the first time in the 18th century. Previous to that, drinking blood was the matter of demons and other mythological creatures. Such as Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Hebrew mythology, who drinks baby’s blood. We’ve written about Lilith previously.

Lilith by John Collier, 1892.

Lilith by John Collier, 1892.

Mass hysteria

Vampires in the classic sense appear heavily in folklore from Eastern Europe in the late 1600 and 1700s. It is these legends that form the basis of the vampire myth that later became popular in the UK and Germany, although they were significantly embellished.

The 18th century saw a widespread vampire scare throughout Europe, eventually leading to mass hysteria referred as the ’18th Century Vampire Controversy’. This allegedly started with increasing reports of vampire attacks in Prussia in 1721. A wave of paranoia swept Europe at the time with members of the population, including the authorities, digging up and staking individuals suspected of vampirism.

The Vampire, lithograph by R. de Moraine, 1864.

The Vampire, lithograph by R. de Moraine, 1864.

This paranoia even affected the cultural elite of Europe with authors such as Voltaire writing in his 1764 Philosophical Dictionary:

“These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. We never heard a word of vampires in London, nor even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.”

Elegant bloodsucker

This idea that vampires can shroud themselves among the rest of the population may be the origin of the sophisticated and elegant image of vampires we have today. Although Bram Stocker’s novel Dracula, published in 1897, has become the reference for vampires, John William Polidori’s novel The Vampyre was published in 1819 and had already been an immense success. Both portray vampires as suave, charismatic and manipulating characters, although with an air of foulness about them.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the 1931 film of the same name.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the 1931 film of the same name.

Vampires were greatly popularised in such gothic literature, known as gothic horror: combining fiction, horror and romanticism. Since Polidori’s book, vampirism has been a clear metaphor for sex and sexuality. They both involve lust and desire; penetration; and the exchange of bodily fluids. Even the subsequent physiological effects are comparable: a short-lived adrenalin high and flush of colour giving way to feeling drained. It’s no surprise that from Buffy to Twilight and from True Blood to The Vampire Diaries, recent representations of vampires have focused on this in different ways: looking at first love, forbidden love, virginity, promiscuity and so on.

From the 1700s to the present day, vampires have spent centuries inspiring numerous novels, movies and TV shows. Although some of the specific characteristics might change between one iteration and another, the essence tends to be the same. Whether rank or rakish, shimmering or smoking in the sun, vampires will exert their powers on you and immutably attract you to your end…or a new beginning.

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Read the rest of the series as they become available.

This is Halloween: Werewolf

Halloween is pretty much upon us: scary films, crazy costumes and spooky stories. What’s scarier, a vampire or a zombie? Will you dress up as a witch or a werewolf? In this seriesMuriel Bailly profiles a famous Halloween monster every day this week to manifest the myths beneath the masks and make-up.

Werewolf

Werewolf, German woodcut from 1722.

Werewolf, German woodcut from 1722.

Fact file

Context

A werewolf, also known as a lycanthrope (from the Greek lykos: wolf and anthropos: man), is someone who can shape shift into a wolf, either at will or due to some kind of magic.

The first mention of people with the ability to transform into wolves appeared as early as the works of Herodotus, Pausanias and Ovid in Late Antiquity. In his “Metamorphoses“, Ovid tells us the story of the Lycaon, King of Arcadia, who was turned into a wolf by Zeus for trying to play a trick on the Olympian god.

Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf.

Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf.

There are many alleged ways to become a werewolf, besides the famous (but recently invented) method of getting bitten by one. You can be the victim of a curse as in the case of Lycaon; you can drink rain water from the footprint of a wolf; or you can sleep naked outside during a full moon.

France

Until the Early Modern period, werewolves were mostly considered to be the victims of curses and were met with a certain amount of empathy, such as in the 12th century French novel Bisclavret by Marie de France. Bisclavret was a nobleman who mysteriously disappeared for three days each month. Not even his wife knew what he was up to during this time. When she begged him to tell her, he finally confessed to being a werewolf. He foolishly (in retrospect) mentioned that when he transforms, he needs to hide his human clothes in a safe place to be able to return to human form. Bisclavret’s wife, shocked by this, arranged to steal her husband’s clothes with her lover to trap him in his lupine form.

In the western world, witchcraft and the supernatural were associated with satanic rituals. Witch and werewolf hunts were fairly common and the lines between them were sometimes blurred: witches were accused of being werewolves and vice versa.

Woodcut of a werewolf attack, 1512.

Woodcut of a werewolf attack, 1512.

Trials and executions increased in 16th century Europe where mentions of werewolves intensified alongside sordid stories of murders. Some of the accused were arrested because villagers needed someone to blame for dead livestock, but others were accused for committing much more horrendous crimes.

Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun were both executed as werewolves in 1521, ditto Gilles Garnier (known as the “Werewolf of Dole”) in 1573. Records indicate that all were serial killers. During his testimony, Garnier revealed that when out hunting in the forest he was visited but a ghost. Struggling to feed himself and his wife, the apparition offered him an ointment that turned him into a wolf, resulting in far more successful hunts. Sadly, Garnier was hunting and eating children. It seems that the term ‘werewolf’ almost describes the beast inside the man surging out when committing such despicable atrocities.

A human compared to a wolf.

A human compared to a wolf.

Germany

A belief in werewolves had almost disappeared from French-speaking areas of Europe by around 1650. It was the Germanic, central area of Europe in which these myths persisted with any vigour. Werewolves were still being feared by people in the Austrian and Bavarian Alps into the 18th century.

The most gruesome werewolf story from Germany is the one about Peter Stumpp. He was known as the “Werewolf of Bedburg”, accused of being a serial killer and cannibal. His trial and execution were barbaric and after experiencing extreme torture, he confessed to killing and eating at least thirteen children, two pregnant women and many livestock. At his trial Stumpp stated that the Devil gave him a belt of wolf fur as a child that transformed him into:

“The likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like brands of fire; a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth; a huge body and mighty paws.”

Woodcut of the execution of Peter Stumpp in 1589 at Bedburg near Cologne.

Woodcut of the execution of Peter Stumpp in 1589 at Bedburg near Cologne.

Were-animals

Before wolves were wiped out from large areas of Europe, their attacks on people were part of life, albeit a rare one. It makes sense that wolves, being the most feared predators in that part of the world, were catapulted into the folklore of demonic shape shifters. In parts of the world without wolves, their “wolf equivalents” have entered mythology in the same way: Africa has werehyenas and India has weretigers. Other werecats feature in South America.

Modern werewolves

Werewolves were popularised again by Gothic literature (on which the British Library has an exciting new exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination). It was at the beginning of the 20th century that the silver bullet motif first surfaced and is already inextricably linked to werewolf mythology. Lycanthropy being passed on via the bite from the monster is another relatively recent werewolf trope.

Not your classic "werewolf and young lady" image.

Not your classic “werewolf and young lady” image.

Whether they were true or not, the stories surrounding werewolves are among the bloodiest and goriest legends of the last 500 years or so. Today, like many classic monsters, werewolves have been glamorised in contemporary pop culture such as Twilight and Teenwolf. Has the beast finally been tamed?

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Read the rest of the series as they become available.

This is Halloween: Witch

Halloween is pretty much upon us: scary films, crazy costumes and spooky stories. What’s scarier, a vampire or a zombie? Will you dress up as a witch or a werewolf? In this seriesMuriel Bailly profiles a famous Halloween monster every day this week to manifest the myths beneath the masks and make-up.

Witch

Fact File

  • Distinctive signs: Pointy hat, unflattering nose, warts, flies on a broomstick, has unusual pets
  • Likely to say: “I like children and I could eat a whole one!” or “Cackle, cackle!”
  • Good points: Can fly, can change their enemies into pretty much anything they like, black is slimming
  • Bad points: Shrill laugh, their cooking is an acquired taste, think of children as snacks
  • Heroes: Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), Bonnie (The Craft), Willow Rosenberg (Buffy), Samantha (Bewitched), Sabrina
  • Villains: Bellatrix Lestrange (Harry Potter), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), The White Witch (Chronicles of Narnia), Madam Mim (Sword in the Stone), Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz), Hocus Pocus

 Context

Many cultures throughout history have an association with an individual who possesses a special knowledge or remarkable powers. Although not exclusively, when applied to women this notion often manifests as witchcraft. It seems to be primarily a female trait and their exact profiles vary depending on the era and the part of the globe they’re from.

Ancient Greece

In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe was a goddess of magic and an expert on drugs and potions. She lived on the Island of Aeaea which she shared with strangely docile wolves and lions: male victims of her spells. When Ulysses’ men, led by Eurylochus, set foot on the island, Circe offered them delicious food and beverages (secretly laced with one of her potions). Once full of these delicacies, she changed them all into beasts.

Circe sits with books and wand after changing Ulysses' men into beasts. Etching by G.B. Castiglione.

Circe sits with books and wand after changing Ulysses’ men into beasts. Etching by G.B. Castiglione.

The Accused

Although many of the women accused of witchcraft were on the fringes of society, outcasts and “strange”, throughout history famous women have also been accused to varying degrees. Perhaps because men thought it was the only way to explain their power. Maybe it was just a ploy to put these trouble making women in their place. In some cases it was simply politics. Either way, I’m sure they had enough to fight against without sorcery accusations too.

One such example lived and ruled in Ancient Egypt. Cleopatra was often accused of being a sorceress by her enemies, in part for venerating animals as gods (unthinkable to Romans) and in part for her ability to charm powerful men like Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Her marriage to Marc Anthony was in accordance to Egyptian rituals: his moving away from Roman traditions was deeply unpopular and Cleopatra was blamed. Thus, she was identified by some as a sorceress with the power to charm even the strongest men of the Roman Republic.

The suicide of Cleopatra.

The suicide of Cleopatra.

Among other crimes, another famous and powerful woman was accused of witchcraft: Joan of Arc. There were several charges laid against “the Maid of Orléans”, from heresy and wearing men’s clothes to sorcery. Joan appeared to meet the criteria for being a witch at the time:  her “strange” behaviour, wearing men’s clothes, hearing voices and remarkably good luck. Of the many dozens of accusations she was tried for, she was found guilty of only twelve. Witchcraft wasn’t one of them

The main crime she was found guilty of was cross-dressing. In addition to this, Joan of Arc also behaved in “masculine” ways: carrying out traditionally male duties; being in command of armies; and liaising with authority figures including the King (all men, of course). Joan of Arc, therefore, whilst attempting to transcend the gender roles of the time, was labelled a witch.

Joan of Arc conjures demons in Shakespeare's 'Henry VI'.

Joan of Arc conjures demons in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VI’.

Japan

In Japanese cultural tradition, the most common type of witch is the one that uses foxes. Foxes (kitsune) are considered to be magical creatures able to shape shift into humans, become invisible and cast illusions. “Fox witches” can allegedly bribe foxes into lending them their powers in exchange for food. As soon as the fox enters the service of humans it becomes a force of evil.

Another Japanese legend tells of a monstrous, cannibalistic crone: a mountain witch called Yamauba. In one tale, she appears kindly when helping to deliver a baby but in fact desires to eat the baby she helped bring into the world.

Yama Uba, the Mountain Witch by Hokusai.

Yamauba, the Mountain Witch by Hokusai.

Africa

In Africa, a Witch Doctor (a term still in use today) is usually a figure of authority and a healer. Rather than casting spells on people, Witch Doctors produce remedies to protect against other people’s bad spirits. Witch Doctors can also be referred to as shamans or medicine men. They are important members of the community with in-depth knowledge of plants and who can allegedly communicate with the spirit world.

African Zulu witch doctor.

African Zulu Witch Doctor.

Western world

One of the oldest mentions of witches is in the Old Testament:

“Let no one be found among you who…practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to The Lord”. Deuteronomy 18:10-13

A witch making a potion.

A witch making a potion.

In the years between the late 15th and 18th centuries, the number of women accused of witchcraft increased massively. People having “supernatural” abilities was thought to be the result of a pact with the devil and therefore and sign of heresy. Read about the relationship between cats and witches in a previous post.

A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts.

A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts.

To counter this, Protestant Christianity organised campaigns of witch-hunts, the most famous being the Salem witch trials. In colonial Massachusetts, between 1692 and 1693, several trials of people accused of witchcraft (mostly women) were conducted and resulted in the execution of 20 people.

In England, Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, was a witch-hunter in the 1640s. It is said his despicable work led to the deaths of over 300 women.

Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder general, with two supposed witches calling out the names of their demons. 1772

Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder general, with two supposed witches calling out the names of their demons. 1772

From this very quick world tour of witchcraft, it seems witches were traditionally identified as old and bitter, allegedly using their skills merely to get back at men. The feminist in me cannot fail to notice that their male counterparts – wizards – do not suffer from the same negative stereotype. Indeed, you can’t get much cooler than Merlin or Gandalf!

Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer reaches peak "good witch".

Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer reaches peak “good witch”.

Although often presented as villains or monsters in league with the devil, it seems the women accused of witchcraft (falsely or otherwise) were often those with power, possessing strong personalities and great knowledge. With Harry Potter, Charmed and other recent portrayals of witches in pop culture, we can appreciate strong women with powerful skills without necessarily explaining them away with devilry or malevolent forces.

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Read the rest of the series as they become available.

The X chromosome

Chromosomes carry the genetic code that determines the characteristics of a living thing. They are fascinating due to the varied factors they determine, the sometimes negative effects they can have and their complexity. Equally interesting are the stories of their discoveries. This series will explore the history of specific chromosomes and their impact on science.

Humans typically have 23 pairs of chromosomes. One of these is comprised of our sex-determining chromosomes, X and Y. Taryn Cain starts this series off by looking at the X chromosome.

When cytologist Hermann Henking looked down his microscope in 1891, he was surprised to see that approximately half of his fire wasps had a spare chromosome floating around. Confused and intrigued, he named his lonely chromosome the “X element”.

By this point scientists already knew about cells; they knew that heritable material must come from these cells and they were aware that humans came from a sperm and an egg. What they didn’t know was how sex was determined while in the womb. Many theories have abounded throughout history.

Sperm of a mouse as seen under a microscope.

Sperm of a mouse as seen under a microscope.

Aristotle was sure that a hot and sweaty father during conception would bring forth a son. Galen believed a man’s right testicle would result in a son. Hippocrates thought it was the domination of a man’s semen over that of a woman’s that would bring him a son. In more modern times, Geddes and Thomson believed that good times would bring on a daughter whereas adversity would give you a son; a metabolic belief of sex determinism which persisted until the 1920s.

An unborn baby's genetic inheritance. (credit: Wellcome Library, London)

An unborn baby’s genetic inheritance. (credit: Wellcome Library, London)

After its discovery, the idea that the X chromosome was somehow responsible for sex determination grew quickly. However, it still took until the middle of the next century to be universally accepted. The X was briefly thought to be male determining until 1906 when this idea was put to rest by the same scientist who discovered the Y chromosome.

Part of the confusion came from the fact that the XX female and XY male combination aren’t standard amongst life on earth:

  • Henking’s fire wasps have XX females and XO males
  • Birds and butterflies have ZW females and ZZ males
  • A Platypus has 5X5X females and 5X5Y males
  • Roundworms have XX hermaphrodites and XO males

Of course, some species don’t rely on sex chromosomes for gender determination at all. Gender in humans isn’t purely determined by chromosomes alone either.

Illustration of a duck-billed platypus.

Illustration of a duck-billed platypus.

Over 200 million years ago the X and Y chromosomes were much like any other chromosome. As the first mammals were beginning to evolve, so were the X and Y chromosomes, drifting away from each other until they had little in common and barely spoke. The Y degenerated into the friendless chromosome we know today, being a third of the size of the X, whereas the X has remained relatively unchanged for the last 150 million years.

Human’s love to categorise things and we also like polarising opinions. This is why there are winners and losers, why you are a cat or a dog person and why your toilet roll must either face towards the back or the front. A similar thought process is at work with the X and Y chromosomes.

Ishihara charts for testing colour blindness.

Ishihara charts for testing colour blindness.

The X is often referred to as the ‘female’ chromosome; it is more accurately described as a ‘human’ chromosome. All of us, regardless of gender, have an active X chromosome in all of our cells. If you are female you were likely born with two Xs, so your cells will express one or the other. If you’re male, you likely only have one, so all your cells are the same.

This is the reason behind the higher incidence of autoimmune disease in women, the greater death rates of men and the male specific X chromosome disorders, such as colour blindness and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. That’s not to say that women are immune from these disorders. Usually when women are affected by them, it’s because they have inherited two mutant Xs, or one X chromosome has dominated the other during foetal development.

Meiosis. (credit: MRC NIMR, Wellcome Images)

Meiosis. (credit: MRC NIMR, Wellcome Images)

In 1992, the Human Genome Project (HGP) began sequencing each of our chromosomes. The X chromosome was sequenced by 250 scientists in 3 countries including the UK, with the nearly complete sequence being released in March 2005. The X was found to contain 155 million base pairs and 1100 genes, 50 of which are shared with the Y.

Along the way, some surprising things were discovered about the X. No one expected the X chromosome to contain genes for testis development, nor that the human X and dog X would be virtually identical. The HGP opened up a whole new door for exploring the path of human evolution.

The human genome library on display at Wellcome Collection.

The human genome library on display at Wellcome Collection.

In 2007, a complete printed library of the human genome, including the sex chromosomes, was given to Wellcome Collection, containing 118 books with over 3 billion characters. This genome library is still on display in our galleries today.

A look inside one of the books in the human genome library.

A look inside one of the books in the human genome library.

Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Unravelling our memories

We recently displayed the results of Unravelled in an installation at Wellcome Collection: a collaboration between art and psychology students from St Marylebone School. Fifteen Sixth Form students worked on the exciting project with artist Sarah Carne entitled ‘Archiving our Memories’. Birte Meyer tells us about the process and work involved.

Unravelled

In the first session in May we were introduced to the Wellcome Library’s fascinating archive and the role of an archivist. Alice Mountfort introduced us to personal diaries from the archive that document experiences and the multiple ways in which people record these. After the talk and handling session the students shared something from their own memories and histories to consider how we archive our own lives. In order to understand how we use our brains as an archive, how we store our memories, and how we retrieve them, we had a talk by Dr Gursharan Virdee, a Clinical Psychologist.

Students looking through the archive.

Students looking through the archive.

Through workshops run by artist Sarah Carne we further investigated the idea of memory, with an emphasis on how and what we remember. Students brought objects that hold a memory to the first workshop, e.g. letters, photos, their own scrapbooks and other ephemera. We discussed how we remember, what do we choose to remember, which senses we use in the process and which materials the students thought appropriate to work with to convey the memories related to their brought object.

Some of the work produced by the students.

Some of the work produced by the students.

In the second workshop we explored and experimented with tools and processes to record memories. We sculpted with plasticine to examine how we can create sculptures that take the memory object as a starting point and find a visual language that conveys the memory that the object holds.

Then we started to experiment with copper wire inspired by the work of Alice Anderson. We wanted to include writing in the collaborative process and suggested that monoprinting and the use of tracing paper would be an appropriate tool for referencing memories.

Experiments with monoprinting on sugar paper.

Experiments with monoprinting on sugar paper.

In the next session we discussed the process of monoprinting and how it can be used to trace and visualise memories. We decided to print on sugar paper referencing the students’ memories of scrapbooks from nursery and primary school. Each student wrote a sentence evoked by the objects they brought in. We decided that these sentences should be incorporated into the final sculptures.

Some of the work produced by the students.

Some of the work produced by the students.

In the final session we refined the copper wire sculptures and drawings, came up with the title “Unravelled” and discussed how our collaborative art installation should be displayed at Wellcome Collection. Everyone involved realised that we could have done with more sessions and that we found it quite challenging to work to such tight deadlines.

Some of the work produced by the students.

Some of the work produced by the students.

This programme provides our students with invaluable experience outside of curriculum time and has given them an insight into what it takes to create a commissioned collaborative art piece and exhibit an artwork in a professional exhibition context. In addition, all students gained an understanding of some of the work of the Wellcome Trust.

Birte Meyer is the A-Level art teacher at St Marylebone School, whose students took part in the project.

Some of the work produced by the students.

Some of the work produced by the students.