Giant Nap

MAC_1010b_ 050

Yesterday, I wrote about the Pied Piper legend, a story in which a whole village full of children disappear inside a mountain and are never seen again. Today I have another story about people who vanished into an underground cavern. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. In Germany, June 27th is known as ‘Siebenschläfertag’ (Seven Sleepers Day). The weather on this day is meant to determine the weather for the following seven weeks. On this basis of that, I predict a little bit of sun, not very warm and looks as though it might rain in a bit. So no change there.

Siebenschläfer is also the name for an edible dormouse, which is a pretty sleepy animal. ‘Seven sleeper’ is also a term which had been used across Europe to describe a person who sleeps much longer that is considered necessary. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus slept much longer than either a sleepy human or a hibernating dormouse. They were seven young Christian men who faced persecution from the Emperor Decius. They refused to worship what they saw as false idols and ran away to hide in a cave. In some versions of the story, they were walled up there by the emperor and left to die.

Many years later, their cave was opened again, by a shepherd who was hoping to use it as a shelter for his sheep. Or by a landowner who wanted it for a cattle stall. After he had gone away, the sleepers awoke but thought they had slept only one night. They sent off one of their number to buy bread in the city. Expecting to have to hide from his persecutors, he was surprised to find that the sign of the cross had been placed at the city gate and that there were churches everywhere. When he took out his money to pay for the bread, the baker was also very surprised. The coin he wanted to pay with was so very old that he thought the young man must have found some ancient treasure. It turned out that they had all slept for years and years. In some accounts it is 300 years, in others 208 or 180. The Emperor was now a Christian called Theodosius II and Christianity was now the dominant religion. Everyone was very excited, and crowds of people rushed to visit the cave and its newly woken inhabitants. There was, at that time, a debate about whether the promise of the resurrection could really be true. Here was living proof that God could raise people from the dead. The sleepers emerged from the cave and, after telling their story to the Bishop of Ephesus, they all died immediately whilst praising God. Of course a church was built over the spot, and you can still visit the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers today.

As you’ll gather from the discrepancies, there are many versions of this story and not all of them are Christian. There is a version of it in the Qur’an which is pretty vague about the number of sleepers, perhaps there were seven, but maybe five or three. The men fall asleep as Christian Berbers, but wake in a land that had converted to Islam. They too, convert to the new religion and can then die happy. This story also includes a sleeping dog who guards the cave entrance. In the Islamic version, only Allah knows how long they slept, which is a neat way of side-stepping the discrepancies between the various accounts. The location is not always the same either. Some place the cave in Jordan and there are several contenders in Tunisia. I think my favourite is at Chenini in southern Tunisia. There, if you visit the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, you will find very large tombs which are about four metres long. The legend there tells us that the men continued to grow whilst they slept and awoke as giants.


12 31 simon formanI have an astrological physician for you today. Simon Forman was born near Salisbury in Wiltshire on this day in 1552. Simon Forman was the son of a farmer, he was not rich and didn’t make any world changing discoveries. So how come we know anything about him at all? It’s because his life is extremely well documented. By Simon Forman. He wrote an autobiography. He kept diaries and also, as an astrologer, he made extensive notes about his consultations. There are a lot of them. 10,000 between the years 1596 and 1602. In each he records the name and age of the client, the question asked and the exact time. From this he constructed an astrological chart that told him what the answer was. So his case notes give quite intimate personal details of Londoners from all walks of life. As around 90% of the questions are about health and disease, they are a rich and rare source of medical records for the period. His astrological nonsense didn’t go down too well with the Company of Barber Surgeons. Yes, I know they sound a bit disreputable too, but they’re still around today, only they’re called the Royal College of Surgeons now. So he was in trouble with them and in trouble for other things too. Perhaps for his occult studies and possessing books about magic. Perhaps for his numerous sexual dalliances with his patients. He actually spent quite a lot of time in prison. Despite his troubles his good reputation began to spread after he survived a nasty dose of plague and claimed to have cured himself.

He wrote extensively about astrology, alchemy, gardening and the history of giants. They’re all descendants of Noah, in case you’re wondering. Also, as we mentioned, he also wrote about himself. We know that his father loved him but his mother did not. We know that he had wild dreams as a child about mountains falling on him, but that he always managed to clamber over. He saw these dreams as prophetic of his difficult life to come. He tells us that when he was at school he used to visit a canon of the church called Mr. Mintorne. The canon rarely kept a fire in the house but he did keep faggots, which in this case means a bundle of dried sticks used to light a fire. When he was cold he would carry them up to the attic until he was warm. When they were all upstairs he carried them down again. He made Simon do the same, because he thought it was better to heat yourself than sit by a fire.

Thanks to his diaries, we know about the time he almost chopped his finger off because he had hung his sword from the bedpost. We know exactly how many times he fell downstairs and on what date. We also know about the time he dreamed about the Queen, Elizabeth I. The Queen was out in the street wearing just a petticoat. Forman rescued her from a weaver with a red beard who was over familiar and kissed her. As he was leading her away, her petticoat dragged in the mud and he suggested to her that he could make her pregnant, then her belly would be bigger and her petticoats would be higher and not get muddy. He was pretty sure it went well. Dreams are weird things and it’s lovely to have one from so long ago recorded.

Forman is also credited with having written the only eyewitness account of the plays of William Shakespeare that date from the life of the playwright. He went to see Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale at the Globe Theatre and also Cymbeline. He wrote short impressions of them, which oddly include a description of Macbeth and Banquo riding in the opening scene.

Although he seems, at best, misguided and, at worst, a charlatan, he did manage to predict his own death. One Sunday afternoon, he announced to his wife that he would die the following Thursday. On Monday, everything was fine. On Tuesday, he was not sick. On Wednesday he was still well. By Thursday his wife was teasing him about it. Then after dinner, he took a boat out on the Thames to go and look at some buildings he had an investment in. In the middle of the river he collapsed and died.

Here Be Giants

10 16 giant exhumedToday I am celebrating a brilliant hoax. The Cardiff Giant was unearthed on this day in 1869, on a farm in Cardiff, New York. The ten foot high human figure was claimed to be the body of a petrified giant from ancient times. But in fact, he had been buried there only eleven months previously. It was the work of a cigar salesman named George Hull.

His idea stemmed from an argument he had with a Methodist Minister who believed that giants had once roamed the earth. It was true because it said so in the Bible. There had been giants, but they were all washed away by Noah’s flood. The science of palaeontology was still relatively new and there were still many people who believed that the fossilized bones of dinosaurs were evidence of this lost race. Also in 1858 a bogus letter had been published in a newspaper called Alta California, claiming that a prospector had been turned to stone after drinking the liquid from the middle of a geode. All this seems a bit far-fetched in the 21st century but it explains why, in the late nineteenth century, people were prepared to believe in fossilized giants.

10 16 cardiff giantHull hired men in far away Iowa to cut him a huge block of gypsum for his giant. In order to avert later suspicion he told them that it was going to be made into a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. He then had it shipped to Chicago. There, he hired a stonecutter called Edward Burghardt to carve it into the likeness of a giant man and swore him to secrecy. Stains were added to the surface to make it look old and it was beaten with knitting needles to make it seem as if the skin had pores. In November 1868 he had it transported by rail to his cousin’s farm and buried there. Hull’s hoax had cost him $2,600 dollars.

The following October his cousin, William Newell, hired two men to dig a well for him and, surprise, surprise, they dug up the giant. Newell immediately put up a tent around his giant and started charging people 25c a time to come and look at it. When they started arriving in cartloads, he put the price up to 50c. Although people flocked to the farm in their hundreds to see the marvel, archaeologists spotted straight away that it was a fake. Geologist realised that it wasn’t a good place to dig a well anyway and Hull found out that his cousin had shared their secret with others. He knew his ruse wouldn’t last long. He quickly sold his giant to a syndicate for $23,000 and they had it shipped to Syracuse, New York and on by road to New York City.

Meanwhile P T Barnum heard of their giant and offered them $50,000 for it, which they refused. It was a mistake. Barnum employed someone to secretly make a wax copy of the giant. As the statue travelled to New York, stopping in many places along the way Barnum was having the wax model scaled up, using measurements taken from newspaper articles, into a plaster copy. By the time the stone giant arrived in New York City, Barnum was already displaying his own Cardiff Giant. He claimed his was the real one and their’s was the copy. The case went to court. The judge had a hard time trying to decide which of the two giants was the most real and suggested that perhaps the giant could come to court and identify himself. In the end, Hull had to admit his hoax and both giants were officially declared to be fakes. The judge ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.

10 16 solid muldoonThe Cardiff Giant was not the only giant to discovered in America in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was not even the only one that was made by George Hull. In 1877 another petrified giant turned up in Beulah, Colorado. This time he had been a bit more modest in his ambitions. The giant, which became known as Solid Muldoon, was only seven feet six inches tall. He had got a bit more creative with his materials though. This time he used a mixture of mortar, rock dust, clay, plaster, ground bones, blood and meat. He also gave it a tail. The giant duly went on display and it was rumoured that P T Barnum had offered $20,000 dollars for it. However, it was soon to revealed to be another hoax and that the perpetrators were none other than George Hull and a disgruntled ex-employee of P T Barnum, William Conant.

Mark Twain wrote a lovely parody of the Cardiff Giant in which the giant tries to haunt his own body in the hope of persuading someone to rebury him. Unfortunately he winds up trying to haunt P T Barnum’s plaster cast instead. If you wanted another ghost story today, you could hear it here.

Around The World

09 06 victoriaOn this day in 1522 the ship Victoria returned to Sanlúcar in Spain. Her sails were in tatters and her small crew were constantly pumping water out of her to keep her afloat. This single ship and her eighteen crew were all that was left of the five ships and 270 men who had set out three years earlier with Ferdinand Magellan on the first ever round the world voyage.

At that time the world had been divided in two, half belonged to Spain and half to the Portuguese. Portugal had control of the eastern shipping routes that led to the Spice Islands, a valuable source of trade. The voyage was largely funded by the Spanish Crown and the intention was that they could gain access to the islands by sailing west. No European had ever sailed beyond the Southern tip of the Americas before, it was uncharted territory. The maps were blank. Magellan though, was confident that he knew of a way through.

They set off in September 1519 and reached the coast of Brazil in December and in January they reached the mouth of the River Plate. Magellan must have thought it was the route beyond the continent that he had been looking for and he must have been extremely disheartened to find himself in a fresh water river. They turned back out to sea and continued southwards down the coast. In March they anchored at a place they named Puerto San Julián in Patagonia. They overwintered there and we are told that they met with a race of giants. Antonio Pigafetta, who was one of the few survivors and chronicled their journey describes them as twice the height of a normal man. Probably they were a tribe called the Teluelches who were unusually tall, but certainly not that big. The idea that there were giants in Patagonia persisted for around 250 years and early maps of the New World often included the Region of Giants.

09 06 strait of magellanIt was a tough winter and supplies were scarce. Also Magellan had a mutiny to contend with. His crew had begun to think that his crazy obsession with trying to find the route to the east would lead them all to their doom. Three of the ships’ captains were against him. He had most of the mutineers killed. Their bones would be found years later by Francis Drake when he made the same voyage. As the search for a route through to the east continued, one of the ships was wrecked and another turned back for Spain. In October, the remaining three ships arrived at a place they named the Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins, an odd name but it is named after a saints’ feast day. There they found a salt water channel that would later be called the Straits of Magellan. It took them more than a month to thread there way through the strait. When they reached the ocean on the other side the water there was so calm the Magellan named it the Pacific Ocean.

Once in the Pacific he assumed that they were close to their destination. He had no idea how big the Pacific was. It was more that three months before they sighted land. The men were forced to eat
rancid biscuit crumbs, leather hide and even the rats aboard the ship. Many starved.

09 06 elcanoWhen they arrived in the Philippines in April, Magellan became involved in a war between local kings that was really a result of his desire to convert everyone to Christianity. He was killed there, he never made it back to Spain. The remaining crew sailed on. In May they were forced to abandon another of their ships. They no longer had enough crew and one of the ships was so worm eaten that they set it on fire and left it. They arrived at the Spice Islands in November and loaded up with what seems to have been principally cloves. The Victoria was now under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano. It was he who decided to continue sailing westwards back to Spain. Magellan had never intended to sail right around the world. He had expected to sail back the same way they had come. The second remaining ship, the Trinidad, had to remain behind for repairs but the Victoria sailed across the Indian Ocean, around the cape of Good Hope and northwards back to Spain.

The ship carried 26 tonnes of spices which were worth more that their weight in gold. But all the crew had to eat on the last part of their journey was rice. Twenty of them starved to death before they reached home. The remaining crew were never properly paid for their service. The cargo was siezed by the crown as compensation for the lost ships.

Although Magellan is often credited as being the first to sail around the world, he did not complete the journey. He didn’t even get to the Spice Islands. The credit should more properly go to Elcano and the seventeen other survivors. You could even argue that the first man to sail right around the world was Magellan’s slave, Enrique, who had been with him since 1511 and was born in the Spice Islands. He completed his circumnavigation in 1521, over a year before the Victoria returned to Spain.

Huge Mystery

07 26 jane bunford coloured and croppedToday I want to tell you about Jane Bunford who was born on this day in 1895 in Bartley Green in the Northfield area of Birmingham. She is the tallest person British person ever. When she died in 1922 her height was estimated at 7′ 11” (2.41 metres) and until 1982 she was the world’s tallest woman.

At age 11 she was 5′ (1.52 metres) tall, which is not unusual. But in 1906 she fell off her bicycle, hitting her head on the pavement. She suffered a fractured skull. It was a serious injury but she eventually recovered, or seemed to. Her pituitary gland, which controls growth, was damaged and Jane began to grow. She was always a shy child and didn’t enjoy the attention her height brought her. Before she was thirteen, her parents took her out of school because she was too tall to sit comfortably in the classroom. She was 6’6” (1.98 metres) tall. Two years later she had reached 7′ (2.13 metres). By her 21st birthday she was 7′ 10” (2.39 metres).

The role of the pituitary gland in growth was not proved until 1915, so, at first, her sudden growth must have seemed very strange. She was diagnosed during her lifetime, but no treatment was available.

It is also thought that she held the record for the worlds longest hair. She wore her long, straight auburn locks in two plaits which fell to her ankles. Her hair was 8′ 1” long, she must have looked amazing. Someone even tried to buy her hair but she refused. She rejected several other opportunities to benefit financially from her size and appearance. Fair enough, it just wasn’t her thing. It does mean though that there are no known photographs of her. We only have stories from local people who remembered her as a shy and gentle woman with a deep voice who was much loved by children. She was also seen standing outside, cleaning the upstairs windows of her home whilst standing on the pavement.

After her death on April 1st 1922, her body was placed in a coffin that was 8′ 2” (2.5 metres) long which was locked in the church overnight on 4/5 April, awaiting the funeral the following day. Her pallbearers were four schoolboys who remarked that the coffin was rather light for someone of her size. Unfortunately, they never thought to ask why.

In 1971 the Guinness Book of Records heard about a medical specimen that was held at the University of Birmingham. The skeleton of an unidentified giantess who died in Northfield, Birmingham in the 1920s.. A photograph of the skeleton appeared in the 1972 edition of the Book of Records and the discovery piqued interest. Who could she be? Birmingham University were pretty cagey about it and refused to reveal the identity of the skeleton or how they had come by it. None of her relatives admitted having given (or sold) her body for medical research, but by that time her close relations had all died. Eventually the university admitted that the skeleton was Jane’s but we still don’t know how they came to have it, or what became of her beautiful hair.

Despite controversy, the skeleton remained on display until 2005, although no more photographs were allowed. Then the law changed and her relatives were able to reclaim her remains and she was finally laid to rest in an unmarked grave. I’m not going to show you the photograph of her skeleton as, from what I’ve read about her, it’s clearly not what she would have wanted. So I’ve drawn you this picture instead.

Dog Head

07 25 saint christopherToday is the feast day of Saint Christopher. For anyone who has ever had a Saint Christopher medallion to protect them on their travels and come to think of it, a fair few who haven’t, I should probably deal with this image first. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Christopher is often pictured with the head of a dog. Probably it is due to a mistranslation. Someone who meant to say that he was a person who came from the land of Caanan (in Latin, Cananeus) accidentally said that he was a dog (canineus). Alternatively it might have been because, in less enlightened times, people thought that there really were tribes of people who had the heads of dogs, who barked instead of speaking and who dined on human flesh. The medieval mind was extremely credulous and people believed all sorts of unexpected things about people from lands far away.

You’ll also notice that Saint Christopher’s tunic is rather short and that his stockings only come up to his knees. This is because Christopher was also a giant. According to wikipedia, he was five cubits tall, that’s seven and a half feet (2.3 metres). If we look at the Golden Legend though, which was written some time in the thirteenth century and much more fun, we find that he was twelve cubits, that’s eighteen feet (just over five and a half metres)

Christopher was in the employment of the king of Caanan but decided that he wanted to serve a more powerful master. He travelled until he met the most powerful king in the world and was received into his court. The king was a Christian and Christopher noticed that he crossed himself whenever the Devil was mentioned. Surely, if the king was afraid, the Devil must be more powerful. So Christopher thought he should be serving the Devil instead and went in search of his new master. He met a group of Knights who demanded to know what he was about. He explained that he was looking for the Devil so he could serve him. So one of the knights said ‘That would be me then…’ and Christopher became his servant. But when the saint found out that his new master was afraid of the cross, he set about finding out about how he could serve God.

He met a hermit who suggested a life of fasting and prayer, but Christopher didn’t think he’d be very good at that. Fair enough really, we expect giants get pretty hungry. Instead he settled on helping people across a dangerous and fast-flowing river. Then one day a child appeared asking to be carried. The tiny boy proved to be so heavy that Christopher was almost drowned. When he set him on the opposite bank the saint said that he didn’t think the whole world would be as heavy as his passenger. The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.”

Saint Christopher was also a martyr and the Golden Legend has a couple of interesting things to tell us about that too. When Christopher refused to worship other gods, a pagan king had him tied to a red hot iron stool which melted like wax beneath him and Christopher was unhurt. Then he had him tied to a stake and made his knights shoot arrows at the saint. But all the arrows stopped short and hung in mid-air. When the king approached to find out what was going on, one of the arrows turned about and shot him in the eye. Christopher explained that the king must cut off his head, mix the saint’s blood with a little earth, apply it to his wounded eye and he would be healed. Christopher was then beheaded and his instructions successfully followed. The Pagan king immediately became a Christian.