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Viking: an alternative etymology

Everybody knows about Vikings, the fearless warriors from the cold and barren north. People who have studied history (but not etymology) will tell you that Viking is an Old Norse word meaning 'pirate' or 'raider'. It's not.
Actually, the English word 'Viking' went extinct in Middle English, was revived in the 19th century and borrowed from the Scandinavian languages of that time.

The etymology of víkingr and víking is hotly debated by scholars. A víkingr was someone who went on expeditions, usually abroad, usually by sea, and usually in a group with other víkingar (the plural).

Both words are thought to be connected with Old Norse vík meaning 'fjord'', 'small bay', 'inlet' or 'cove'. Towns such as Reykjavik and Lerwick may trace their origins back to the Vikings. But it would be a step too far if one would decide that viking was named after a 'fjord'. Vikings were a diverse group and originated from the entire Scandinavian peninsular. We need another explanation.

The Swedes will tell you that vig means 'battle' and therefore a viking would be a 'warrior'. Not so.

Both wic in Old English and wick in Old Frisian meant ‘camp’ or ‘a temporary living space'. So, it's quite possible that, if vic means 'camp', then 'vikingr' could well mean '(one) going on a camping trip'.

As camps grew into more permanent settlements, the word vic also came to denote something different. We can discover the word in Old English wīc ('dwelling place', 'abode') and Middle English wik, wich ('village', 'hamlet', 'town'). Modern Dutch wijk and modern Frisian wyk still mean 'part of a city'.

New novel brings Inspector Morse back to life

A new Inspector Morse novel will help to raise funds for a statue of Colin Dexter in Oxford.

Friend of the author, Antony Richards, chairman of the Inspector Morse Society, has written 'Dead Man's Walk' following encouragement from Colin Dexter, who recently died aged 86. Richards (1963) never intended to be an author but in 2015, after Colin Dexter suggested he should try to write a novel, he began to work on 'Dead Man's Walk'.
"Back in 2015, guided by Colin,” Richards says, “I set to work doing a page a day first thing in the morning before work. Just as he instructed 'if you do a page a day then at the end of the year you will have a book'. Also taking Colin's advice I wrote about something I knew - Inspector Morse - and it soon occurred to me that there had not been a new novel for over 15 years".

Antony Richards will publish the tale under the pen name Antony James, a reference to his 10-year-old son James. He added: "Colin was given a copy of the novel - he actually features in it as a trainspotting truanting schoolboy”.

Richards unsuccessfully submitted the murder mystery to Macmillan last year, but the publishers of the Morse novels did not object to the work being published elsewhere as long as it was made clear it was fan fiction.

He is certain his novel, to be published by his own The Irregular Special Press, will never be able to compete with his friends' books in terms of sales - the 13 Inspector Morse novels sold four million copies in the UK alone - but bookshops have already shown an interest.
The title refers to the footpath near Merton College and the plot features a young Endeavour Morse in 1971, working as a sergeant in Oxford, who is called to investigate the murders of two men whose surnames match those of the Oxford martyrs. Well, 1971 is within the scope of the Endeavour adaptations and one of my favourite actresses, Abigail Thaw, is part of that series.

Dr Richards added: "A life-size statue could cost about £25,000 and if we sold 500 copies of the novel initially that could raise a few thousand pounds to kickstart fundraising - there are about 400 members of the society and I'm sure lots of them will buy a copy."

[Update March 24, 2017] Antony Richards reached out to me and said that at present the book is still at the proofing stage and a release date has not been decided upon. He will make sure that I receive information when available.

[Review] 'Sleeper' by J.D. Fennell

'Sleeper', the debut by J. D. Fennell, is marketed as a young adult thriller. Yes, it is that and much more. The book is also a masterful melange of fantasy and war-time chaos. The protagonist Will Starling is a sixteen year old and he must keep a mysterious notebook out of the hands of VIPER, a murderous bunch of villains. After being shot and fallen into the icy water near Dover, he is rescued only to discover his memory is gone. You might think that this is some sort of homage to Jason Bourne, but 'Sleeper' is different. Very different.

Slowly but surely the memory of Starling returns and he understands that he's no ordinary lad. He's been trained to kill and to maim. As could be expected the story takes place at the backdrop of air raids on London, which adds another layer of fear and chaos to 'Sleeper'.

Just a few pages into the tale, I was certain that this was no ordinary thriller. This was something new. If I were a native English speaker, I would be able to say that it is a ripping yarn told at breakneck speed. What can it be compared to, I wondered aloud. In the end I decided 'Sleeper' might well be a start to a wonderful series that emulates the movies about 'Indiana Jones' with elements of Young Bond (by Steve Cole) and Alex Rider (by Anthony Horowitz) thrown in for good measure.

This is a thriller I would certainly highly recommend to young adults, but more adult readers might find 'Sleeper' also very entertaining. If I were pressed to mention a minor negative, I might mention that I missed a bit of British tongue-in-cheek humour to lighten the narrative a bit at opportune moments. But I would only mention that after a fair bit of torture.

Fears in Modern and Victorian Times

With the disappearance of God from our daily lives, a void has been created in the minds of many whom otherwise would have been receptive of believing in some type of Christianity. Not believing means you've excluded yourself from the flock, but humans unconsciously strive to be part of a group.
So, what does one do if one doesn't believe in an omnipresent God, but 'needs' to believe in 'something' in this ever changing world? The answer is the New Age of spirituality, the belief in a cosmic power that presumably permeates us all. Spirituality is a sort of supermarket where you can grab anything you want to believe in, like reiki, homeopathy or wiccan (modern-day witchcraft). As such, there's no single, widely agreed definition of spirituality. Spirituality is simply the belief in God without naming or acknowledging him. It is the unconscious drive to make sense of a rapidly changing world where the old belief systems no longer 'works'.

The Victorian Era is usually seen as one of secularisation, a period when the disciplines and institutions of modern science were founded. The traditional authority of religion made room for explanation through the scientific exposition of natural laws.

But, just as can be seen in our times, people found that their world was changing and progressing too fast. In lots of minds the advance of science could not keep up with the decline of belief. In that psychological void the belief in supernatural forces, mesmerism, spiritualism and 'true' ghost stories flourished. The natural and the supernatural often became blurred in popular thinking.
No area of the literary culture of the Victorians was left untouched by this interplay of science and magic. Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' (1897) was a thinly veiled sexual tale about a fear of a corrupt, perverted, lustful male sexuality targeting women. Another fear was the idea that progress couldn't go on forever: after evolution, a period of degeneration and decline was surely to come. Robert Louis Stevenson’s 'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' (1886) explored a scenario of frightening devolution. Stevenson’s erudite and gentlemanly Jekyll turns into the lustful and murderous Hyde. Hyde’s squat, ape-like body, his dark, hairy hands, and his energy and appetite all signal his ‘degenerate’ state. Even Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was mesmerised by mesmerism and wrote a short novella 'The Parasite' (1894) in which a female mesmerist subjugates a young male scientist in her home.

Nothing much has changed.

The fear of cats in Victorian times

It was in the late nineteenth century that medicine turned its attention to irrational fears. The German physician Carl Westphal (1833-1890) made the initial diagnosis of a phobia, agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, in 1871[1]. He studied the behaviour of three otherwise sane and rational men who were terrified of crossing an open city space. Following this diagnosis, the notion that individuals could be overtaken by various form of inexplicable fear was quickly taken up by medical practitioners around the world.

The American psychologist Granville Stanley Hall (1846-1924) soon identified 138 different forms of pathological fear[2]. Not only did these include recognised phobia, such as agoraphobia and claustrophobia, but also some fears that were particular to the Victorian era: amakophobia (fear of carriages), pteronophobia (fear of feathers) and hypegiaphobia (fear of responsibility).
However, it was the fear of cats (ailurophobia) that attracted the most attention from Victorian researchers. Hall, with his colleague Silas Weir Mitchell, even conducted experiments, such as placing sufferers into a room with a hidden cat, to see if they picked up animal's presence. He became convinced that many of his patients always could sense them. Trying to explain the phobia, he ruled out asthma and evolutionary inherited fears (people who were terrified of cats were could look at lions and tigers without problems).

Eventually Hall suggested that emanations from the cat 'may affect the nervous system through the nasal membrane, although recognised as odours'. He remained baffled over why cats seemed to have an urge to get as close as possible to individuals who were scared of them.

Research now suggest that the Victorian urge to classify almost everything was the result of a rapidly changing, industrialising society, where new scientific theories were starting to challenge long-held religious beliefs, explanations and dogma.


A perfect example of the Victorian passion to collect and classify can be read in the very entertaining novel, 'A Proper Education for Girls', written by my friend E.S. Thomson.

[1] Westphal: Die Agoraphobie, eine neuropathische Erscheinung in Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten - 1871
[2] Stanley Hall: Synthetic Genetic Study of Fear in American Journal of Psychology - 1914

Astronomy and watches in Friesland

Astronomical devices have been made for thousands of years. A famous example is the Antikythera mechanism, an artifact recovered off the Greek island of Antikythera. It is an ancient planetarium (or orrery) used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes. Even the Olympiads, the cycles of the ancient Olympic Games, could be calculated. The ancient device is a complex clockwork mechanism composed of at least 30 meshing bronze gears and is dated at around 205 BC.
[Model of the Antikythera mechanism]
Just a few kilometers west of my hometown of Harlingen lies the city of Franeker. In that Frisian town once lived Eise Eisinga (1744-1828), an amateur astronomer who built a planetarium in his own house. The planetarium still exists and is the oldest functioning planetarium in the world. Eisinga never went to school, but he did publish a book about the principles of astronomy when he was only 17 years old.
[Eise Eisinga's planetarium]
And today the Frisians are still world famous for their – sometimes – astronomical watches with – yes- astronomical price tags. Christiaan van der Klaauw, based in Heerenveen, creates astronomical watches such as the Planetarium, which contains the smallest mechanical planetarium in the world, showing in real time the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn around the Sun. Don't worry, it also tells you the time and the mechanism is extremely accurate.
[Van der Klaauw Planetarium CKPT3304]
It isn't quite known why Frisians are so fascinated with planetary movements. It might have something to do with their healthy dairy products or their perfect night skies, but my bet is on Beerenburg, a traditional alcoholic drink that contains a host of medicinal herbs. It is almost exclusively consumed by Frisians.

Was Marco Polo born in Croatia?

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant, traveller and citizen of the Venice Republic. He learned the mercantile trade from his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, who travelled through Asia and met Kublai Khan. In 1269, they returned to Venice to meet Marco for the first time. The three of them embarked on an epic journey to Asia, returning after 24 years to find Venice at war with Genoa.
The Republic of Genoa defeated Venice in the Battle of Curzola off the coast of Dalmatia in 1298 and Marco Polo, then a galley commander, was taken prisoner to eventually spend his time in a Genoese prison dictating his adventures to a cell-mate. He was released in 1299, became a wealthy merchant, married and fathered three children.

So far, so good. But the problem is that Marco Polo's exact date and place of birth cannot be found in the Venetian archives, which is strange because these were among the very best in Medieval Europe. So, while he is mentioned as a citizen, he seems not to have been born in the city of Venice. At the time Venice was a powerful mercantile nation that had vastly expanded its boundaries.

Some historians believe that Marco Polo was born on the now Croatian island of Korčula, then called Curzola by Venetians[1].

So many Slavs (not slaves) from the Dalmatian Coast arrived as sailors in Venice, that the long quay by St. Mark's was and is known as Riva degli Sciavoni ('Quay of the Slavs'). Marco Polo was buried in a Slavic quarter in Venice.

If Marco Polo was originally from – modern day – Croatia, he would also have have a Slavic name. And, as some think, he had: Marco Polo was once called Marko Pillic.
[Supposed home of Marco Polo on Korčula/Curzola]
Is this theory based on fact or is it simply conjecture to boast tourism in Croatia? It might well be that it is a bit of both. If Marco Polo was born on Korčula/Curzola, he would have been regarded as a Venetian, because the island was part of Venice. That the island is now part of Croatia is not important.

[1] Olga Orlić: The curious case of Marco Polo from Korčula: An example of invented tradition in ScienceDirect - 2013  

Painkillers are killing America

You might remember House MD self-medicating on Vicodin to keep the pain in his leg at bay and allowing him to function as a brilliant docter. Vicodin is a painkiller that consists of a combination of two ingredients: hydrocodone and acetaminophen. Hydrocodone is an opioid, while acetaminophen (paracetamol) is a non-opioid analgesic. It is indicated for relief of moderate to severe pain.
Fentanyl is another potent, synthetic opioid pain medication with a rapid onset and short duration of action. It is approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain. Fentanyl is more than 50 times more potent than morphine, thus increasing the risks for users. Fentanyl has emerged as the drug of choice in many parts of the United States and its legal and illegal use is now termed an 'epidemic' by scientists.
Opioid use has exploded in the US, after decades of doctors over-prescribing painkillers in the 1990s and 2000s. Authorities believe it is now pouring into the US, mostly directly from China through the mail, sometimes via Mexico.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that drug overdose deaths nearly tripled during 1999–2014[1]. Among 47,055 drug overdose deaths that occurred in 2014 in the United States, nearly 30,000 of these deaths involved an opioid. There are now more people killed by opioids than from bullets[2].
Another factor is that opioids are often taken with other painkillers and alcohol, which also acts as a sedative.

[Update March 16, 2017] The Commission on Narcotic Drugs, part of the UN, has decided to help the US by adding two chemicals, used to make the drug Fentanyl, to an international list of controlled substances. It is hoped that it will help fight a wave of deaths by overdose in America. The substances are two precursors of Fentanyl, 4-anilino-N-phenethylpiperidine (ANPP) and N-phenethyl-4-piperidone (NPP). It also added a fentanyl analog called butyrfentanyl, a drug similar to fentanyl.

[1] Rose et al: Increases in Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths — United States, 2010–2015 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) – 2016
[2] Washington Post: Heroin deaths surpass gun homicides for the first time, CDC data shows – 2016. See here.

The ancestors of Asperin

For millennia, pain, fever and inflammation were commonly treated with plants that contained salicylic acid glycosides: leaves of myrtle (Myrtus spp), bark of willow (Salix spp.), bark of poplar (Populus spp.), meadowsweet (Spirea spp. - recently reclassified as Filipendula spp.).

Even about 3500 years ago, an Egyptian papyrus recommended the application of a decoction of the dried leaves of Myrtle to the abdomen and back to expel rheumatic pains from the womb. A thousand years later, Hippocrates advised the juices of the poplar tree for treating eye diseases and those of willow bark for pain in childbirth and for fever.
[Meadowsweet]
Through the Middle Ages the medical use of salicylates continued. However, willows were increasingly used for basket-making and therefore the women grew meadowsweet (Spirea ulmaria, now Filipendula ulmaria) in their gardens and made decoctions from the flowers[1].

The first 'clinical trial' of willow bark was published by English country parson Reverend Edward Stone (1702-1768). He had accidentally tasted willow bark and was surprised by its bitterness, which reminded him of chinchona bark, which contains quinine, which was at that time already in use to treat malaria. He was a believer in the 'doctrine of signature' which dictated that the cures for the diseases would be found in the same location where malady occurs.

Since the ‘Willow delights in a moist and wet soil, where agues chiefly abound’, he gathered a pound of willow bark, dried it in a baker’s oven for three months, pulverized and administered it to 50 patients with safety and success. He reported his observations to the Royal Society[2].

In 1859 Friedrich Kolbe identified the structure of salicylic acid, managed to obtain it synthetically and introduced it to therapy. However, the extremely bitter taste of the substance and the side-effects of gastric irritation caused by the acid, made it a problem if you wanted to prescribe it a prolonged periods of time.
Then, in 1897, Felix Hoffman at Bayer’s Laboratory synthesized acetylsalicylic acid, shortly thereafter named 'aspirin' (it contained the root of spiric acid from Spirea Ulmaria - which is chemically identical to salicylic acid – and added the letter 'A' as an abbreviation for 'acetyl' because the orignal German name was once acetylierte spirsäure). Hoffman had personal reasons for wanting a more acceptable salicylic acid derivative, since his father who had been taking salicylic acid for many years to treat his painful arthritis had recently discovered that he could no longer take the bitter drug without vomiting.

More than a hundred years after its introduction to therapy, aspirin remains the most popular drug in the world. It now covers far more than inflammation and pain. It is nowadays prescribed for its anti-thrombotic effects, its prevention of strokes[3] and – most recently – its anti-cancer activities[4].

[1] Vane et al (eds): Aspirin and other salicylates – 1002
[2] Stone: An account of the success of the bark of the willow in the cure of agues in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – 1763
[3] Isabel et al: Stroke Prevention in Presse Medicale – 2016
[4] Patrignani et al: Low-dose aspirin acetylates cyclooxygenase-1 in human colorectal mucosa: implications for the chemoprevention of colorectal cancer in Clinical Pharmacological Therapies - 2017

[Review] 'Misericord' by AK Benedict

You might wonder what a 'misericord' is. Well, a misericord is a small wooden structure in a church which is intended to act as a shelf to support a person in a partially standing position during long periods of prayer.
‘Misericord’ is also a subtle short story by A. K. Benedict, known for her thrillers with a supernatural twist 'The Beauty of Murder' and 'The Evidence of Ghosts'. This short story delves into nearly forgotten religious practices subsumed by the advance of Christianity. It is a story with an underlying sense of menace, tapping onto the spiritual nature of the old landscape and the ancient buildings scattered across it, hinting at a subtle kind of possession.

Isabelle has spent her whole career studying carvings in churches and, together with her fiancée Katie, spends one afternoon looking at carvings in a church. The pair seem to be having a less than perfect relationship and that merges slowly with some whispers of pagan worship.

The story grips you literally by the throat. Yes, the reverend on duty probable knows far more than she tells Isabelle and Katie. The ending will surely make your skin crawl as it involves swarms of flying ants.

'Misericord' is another example of the fertile imagination of AK Benedict. I hope that one day all her novels and short stories will merge together into one fascinating universe of reality, spiritual, supernatural and fantasy.

'Misericord' has been published in 'Great British Horror 1: Green and Pleasant Land'. You should buy it.

Abigail Thaw on 'Morse' and 'Endeavour'

[Guest post by Damian Michael Barcroft, previously published here]

2017 comes around and I had no inkling it was 30 years since Morse first crossed our TV screens. Perhaps that’s a credit to the Endeavour series that we’ve become so immersed on our characters and our own program. Suddenly I am in the thick of the “30 years” thing and I can’t believe it was so long ago that it all started.
[Abigail Thaw as Dorothea Fazil]
But I remember thinking, while waiting to shoot my first scene of series 4 in 2016, that being in Oxford is a pertinent reminder of my father for me. It brings me back to him with a jolt; the colleges, the streets, the Randolph Hotel, the Ashmolean. Strange, because I lived there as a child long after my parents divorced so I’ve rarely been there with him. But the character of Morse is so ingrained in that golden stone and the legacy (although I hate that cliched word) is quite sobering. Staring round at this wonderful, talented crew and actors, there to tell the stories of Inspector Morse’s crime solving… I mean, how extraordinary is that!

Thank you Colin Dexter and thank you Dad for giving 'Morse' a corporal existence and everyone for continuing to make it happen: Damien, Russell, Kevin who drives you to the set happy and rested, Shaun with all that weight on his slender shoulders that he carries effortlessly… The list is very long. And then I stop thinking about it because if I didn’t I’d be overwhelmed and wouldn’t be able to do my job!

Having James Laurenson in the first episode was a treat and it was lovely to hear his stories of that very first Morse; the uncertainty of whether it “had legs”. But for the rest of the time I don’t think about “Morse” or “Dad”. I look across at my fellow actors and I think, Hello Endeavour or Hello Thursday, and when the camera’s not rolling I’m having a jolly good laugh; or putting the world to right over a custard cream and a tepid cup of tea; or trying to remember my lines and not bump into the furniture. Or trying to look as though I drive a 1960 Triumph with exceptionally stiff gears every day of my life…

And I love Dorothea. I fall for her more with each series. Russell thinks up all sorts for her, some make it to the final cut and many don’t but I know they’re there and they help me fill her out. Russell graciously allows me to feel I have some input into her development as I email him with the odd thought but I have to admit, he’s the puppet master. And I love the glimpses we get of her private life. Her friendship with Endeavour is touching and particularly comes to fruition in this series. Not to give anything away! She’s a lonely soul much like her Morse compatriot. But she’s got such gumption and life force. She can be utterly charmless when she wants to be which is rare in playing or being a woman. Something men take for granted. I wish I was more like her in many ways. But not at the witching hour after a scotch too many. Or those dark hours before dawn. I doubt she’s a stranger to the Dark Night of the Soul.

Whatever other job I do during the year, there is nothing like the thrill of a fresh new Endeavour script arriving, the comfort of all those familiar faces working for the same thing, making it as brilliant and enjoyable as possible. Putting on Dorothea’s rather uncomfortable clothes and pointy bra and drowning in a sea of Irene’s (Napier) hairspray, I’m plunged back into “Ah yes, I know this. Hello, girl. Cheers.”

BTW: The name Dorothea Frazil is a clever find. 'Frazil' means 'Ice crystals formed in turbulent water, as in swift streams or rough seas'. D. Frazil can thus be read as 'De-ice' or 'Thaw'.

Where was the River Styx situated?

In Greek mythology, Styx (Ancient Greek: Στύξ) is both a deity and a river that forms the boundary between Earth and Hades, the Underworld. Hades is also the name of its ruler. Styx is also a goddess with prehistoric roots in Greek mythology as a daughter of Tethys, after whom the river is named and because of whom it had miraculous powers. Charon is the ferryman who transferred the dead to the Underworld.
The river Styx converges with other rivers at the center of the underworld on a great marsh, which sometimes is also called the Styx.

So, we have a river and a deity with the same name and we have an underworld and its ruler with the same name. What do these names mean?

The word 'Styx' is cognate with Greek stygos 'hatred', stygnos 'gloomy', and derives from stygein 'to hate', 'abominate'. Both the words 'Hades' and 'Charon' are reputedly of unknown origin, which always makes me suspicious. Every linguist seems to try to find an etymology by comparing a Greek word to the languages of its neighbours, but always tend to forget its most influential and powerful neighbour: Egypt.

The question is therefore: can we find an etymology in Egyptian that mirrors the Greek version. The answer is: yes, we can.

In Egyptian, stkn (remember they didn't use vowels in Egyptian) is a causative of tkn 'approach' with the specific sense of 'to induct, bring on doom'. Hades received his/its name from ḥdi as a verb with the meaning 'to be destroyed' and as a noun 'damage', 'destruction'. Diodoros believed that the name Charon (Kharon) was Egyptian:
The other myths about Hades, current among the Greeks, also agree with the customs which are practised even now in Egypt. For the boat which receives the bodies is called baris and the passenger's fee is given to the boatman, who in the Egyptian tongue is called charon. And near these regions, they say, are also the 'Shades'.
But the baris was also the ship of Osiris, but dead pharaohs were also transported on a baris to their final resting place. The journey from Osiris to the Underworld was therefore reenacted time and time again.

We can identify the Egyptian god of the Underworld Anubis in this description of Hades. 'Anubis' was  the Greek rendering of this god's Egyptian name. In the Old Kingdom (ca 2686 BC–ca 2181 BC), the standard way of writing his name in hieroglyphs was composed of the sound ı͗npw followed by a 'jackal' over a ḥtp sign.

The problem is that there does not seem to be a plausible Egyptian root of the word 'Charon', but it is possible that it has an etymology from the West-Semitic deity Ḥrn, vocalized as Horon in the Bible and known as the 'Lord of Hell'. Still, the region was frequently conquered by Egypt and we might assume that Hades ultimately has Egyptian roots.
[Ancient branches of the Nile]

Thus with a river with several tributaries that end in a great march. Which other river can that be other than the river Nile? But what of all these words that signify death and doom? These are very reminiscent of the spells from the 'Book of the Dead', the ancient Egyptian group of magical and religious texts. The spells are meant to help the dead progress through the many challenges in the underworld (the Duat) to the afterlife. Pharaohs who had died were transferred in boats via the river Nile to their lavishly decorated tombs in the Valley of the Death. These tombs were protected by powerful spells that would ensure that they were not violated.
[Book of the Dead]
Based on the evidence it seems very probable that the concept of the River Styx was borrowed from Egypt and 'transplanted' to Ancient Greece. My conclusion is that the River Styx is non other than the River Nile.

Honeysuckle Weeks on 'Foyle's War'

'Foyle’s War', the absorbing detective drama starring Michael Kitchen as a Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) battling crime, the Axis and the odd English traitor on the home front during World War II. And there’s always an absorbing whodunit (or mad bomber or rogue pilot or warped priest) and a psychological twist to keep things interesting. But the best thing about the show isn’t always Foyle or the great plots or his one-legged sidekick Sgt. Milner - it’s his female driver Samantha Stewart. She’s tough without being stony. Righteous without being preachy. Girly without being frilly. You know, pretty perfect to watch.

Honeysuckle Weeks was the actress who played Sam and she gave her thoughts on some aspects of the series.
She started off the show as quite a young person, and I’ve tried to keep that youthful essence as the show has progressed over the last seven years; partly because that is part of her appeal as a character, but also because I instinctively feel that people living during that time had a greater degree of innocence. The war has its effects on her of course, especially in her relationships with men, but it’s her spirit of ploughing on and making do and grace under fire that shines through more than world-weariness, I would say. She brings relief from some of the plot’s darker aspects by being resolutely cheerful, which is great fun to play. During the first season one could say she has more pluck than sense, but as the series progresses she gradually becomes less of a spanner in the works and more of a cog in the engine, so to speak. She has a stoical attitude to adversity and puts the idea of ‘duty’ before self, and this I think informs all the characters in 'Foyle’s War', a selfless attitude which perhaps we’d do better to hold onto today!

My favorite episode is probably 'Among the Few,' which is largely to do with doctors in a hospital that specializes in treating burns victims. It sounds grim, but in fact it’s an incredibly uplifting episode because of the moving relationships that are built up between doctor or nurse and patient, and the bravery of the men who struggle on through life even though their bodies and faces are destroyed. It’s about the heartache of the sweethearts who have to come to terms with the disfigurement of their pilots, and the carousing spirit of the staff who try to improve the lot of their heroic wards. In short, it’s an episode that I think champions all that is best in the human spirit. Oh... and of course, there’s a gripping murder case with lots of explosions and spitfire aerodynamics on the side. It’s also exquisitely shot. Source here.

The first episode of 'Foyle's War' was aired in 2002. The series was canceled after the fifth season (2008), but was revived in 2010 to run for another three years. A total of 28 episodes were created by screenwriter and author Anthony Horowitz.

Will there ever by another unexpected revival of 'Foyle's War'? Anthony Horowitz saidIt had to come to an end sometime. We went from 1940 all the way through to 1947 – and I told countless true stories about the war. I felt that there were no more true stories to tell about that period, I’d sort of covered pretty much every area”.

He's wrong of course, because 1947 was essentially the start of the Cold War and that tense period could produce some very interesting scripts. It also ties in perfectly with Anthony Horowitz' exploits with James Bond. He has recently been commissioned to write a second novel about the British spy who was the epithome of the Cold War. The first, 'Trigger Moris' was very well received, even among the really serious reviewers.

Since Michael Kitchen will turn 69 in 2017, he will probably not be particularly interested to participate. That said, we could contemplate a structure like 'Morse' changing into 'Lewis' and 'Lewis' hanging into 'Endeavour'.

So, 'Foyle's War' could become 'Stewart's Peace' with Honeysuckle Weeks in the starring role. She confessed to me that the prospect was 'most cockle warming'.

E.S. Thomson knows the pain of fleshing out a character

[Guest post by Magnus Linklater, previously published in The Times]

The heroine of Elaine Thomson’s crime novel 'Beloved Poison' has a strawberry mark on her face. It is as nothing to the afflictions of the author herself.
While she was writing, eczema covered her face and body. Her hair fell out and she had to wear a wig. The drugs she took to counteract the disease turned her skin red and it began to flake off. If ever a writer felt at one with her character, it was Elaine Thomson.

“It was unmeasurably horrible,” she admits, as she sits in her Edinburgh flat, thinking back to the two years she spent writing her book, which is set in Victorian London. “It was the pain as much as the sight of it. It was on my face that it was particularly awful, because that is what people look at when they want to speak to you, and when they did so, they would slightly recoil. They wouldn’t realise they were doing it, but I could see when they were looking at my face they were seeing the thing on it, not the person.”

She understands the isolation that people with some sort of facial blemish feel. They are looked at, but rarely seen, she says.

“You ask anyone with a disfigurement to their face, and they feel quite lonely and isolated, so I gave [my heroine] all those things. I thought it would add a bit of depth to the character.”

Today Elaine Thomson is clear of her eczema. A lifelong sufferer, she realised that the steroid creams she had been using to treat it had become part of the problem. “After a while you become addicted to them,” she said. “If you’re not careful, the rash gets worse and worse, and when you give up the steroid creams your whole skin melts off. It’s called red skin syndrome and not a lot of people know about it. It’s hideous and debilitating and people feel very depressed, almost suicidal, because of the pain and the ugliness.”

The cure, she realised, was to give up the steroids and let the body cure itself, which it did.

Meanwhile, she has ploughed her experiences into a book suffused with grim details about the primitive way that medicine was administered in Victorian hospitals, before anaesthetics such as chloroform or modern ideas about hygiene.

“I was a little bit against doctors I have to say, so filling the book with evil doctors who don’t listen to what you say was on my mind a little bit,” she joked.


It was not the only battle she has had to fight. Two previous books, published under her married name of Elaine di Rollo, though widely praised failed to sell in sufficient quantities and, in her own words, she “fell off the radar”. Publishers took one look at her previous sales, and turned her down. She decided to turn to crime fiction. She wrote 'Beloved Poison' as Elaine di Rollo, but when it, too, was rejected she changed to her maiden name, Thomson, and immediately found three publishers who were keen to take it. She now writes under the name E.S. Thomson, and has a four-book contract, all crime novels set in the 19th century.
With a PhD in the social history of medicine from Edinburgh University, E.S. Thomson has studied the role of women doctors in medicine as they struggled to be accepted. But it was the 1850s that intrigued her.

“If you move back a bit, just before anaesthetics, just before chloroform, before the telegraph, and with the railways only just starting, it’s like a different world,” she says. “I felt I could describe the indescribable, they were such terrible times, before you got slum clearance, sewage works or public health. Places like Glasgow, London and Manchester were on the very brink of survival, almost falling into their own mess.”
'Beloved Poison' is set in a crumbling infirmary, with stinking wards and cramped corridors, where doctors do amputations without anaesthetics and a “blood box” is kicked around to catch the patient’s blood as it pours off the operating table. “I was fairly graphic about it because I do feel that as a historian you should know about that. It should not be prettified in a Hollywood sort of way.”

The (Short) Evolution of Smallpox

New research suggests that smallpox, a viral disease that caused millions of deaths worldwide, may not be an ancient disease[1]. The findings raise new questions about when the Variola virus first emerged and later evolved, possibly in response to inoculation and vaccination.
Smallpox, one of the most devastating viral diseases, had long been thought to have appeared in human populations thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, India and/or China, with some historical accounts suggesting that pharaoh Ramses V, who died circa 1145 BC, suffered from smallpox due to lesions found on his face.

To better understand its evolutionary history, scientists extracted the DNA, from partial mummified remains of a Lithuanian child, interred in the crypt of a church in Vilnius, believed to have died between 1643 and 1665, a period in which several smallpox outbreaks were documented throughout Europe with increasing levels of mortality. Researchers compared the 17thC strain to those from a databank of samples dating from 1940 up to its eradication in 1977. Surprisingly, the results shows that the evolution of smallpox virus occurred far more recently than previously thought, with all the available strains of the virus having an ancestor no older than 1580 AD.

The pox viral strains, that represent the true reservoir for human smallpox, remains unknown to this day. Camelpox is very closely related, but is not regarded as the likely ancestor to smallpox, suggesting that the real reservoir remains at large or has gone extinct[2].
The researchers also discovered that smallpox virus evolved into two circulating strains, Variola major and Viriola minor, after English physician Edward Jenner developed a vaccine in 1796.

One form, Variola major, was highly virulent and deadly, the other Variola minor more benign. However, the two forms experienced a ‘major population bottleneck’ with the rise of immunization efforts.The date of the ancestor of the minor strain corresponds well with the Atlantic Slave trade which was likely responsible for partial worldwide dissemination.


This raises important questions about how a pathogen diversifies in the face of vaccination. While smallpox is now eradicated in humans, we should remain vigilant about its possible reemergence until we fully understand its origins.

[1] Duggan et al: 17th Century Variola Virus Reveals the Recent History of Smallpox in Current Biology – 2016. See here
[2] Smithson et al: Prediction of steps in the evolution of variola virus host range in PLoS One - 2014 

Ether

While ether was already synthesized around 1540, when the German botanist and chemist Valerius Cordus created a revolutionary formula that involved adding sulfuric acid to ethyl alcohol, its use as an anaesthetic on humans was only 'discovered' in 1842.
Crawford Williamson Long (1815-1878), an American surgeon and pharmacist, became the first pioneer to use ether as a general anesthetic when he removed a tumor from a patient’s neck. Unfortunately, Long didn’t publish the results of his experiments until 1848. By that time, Boston dentist William Morton (1819-1868) had won fame by using it while extracting a tooth from a patient in 1846. An account of this successful painless procedure was published in a newspaper, prompting, surgeon, John Collins Warren(1778-1856), to ask Morton to assist him in an operation removing a large tumor from a patient’s lower jaw.

But ether had a more disturbing and sinister use. During the second half of the 19th century, ether was widely used a recreational drug in some European countries[1], becoming especially popular in Ireland, as temperance campaigners thought it was an acceptable alternative to alcohol. Until 1890, when it was finally classified as a poison, more than 17,000 gallons of ether were being consumed in Ireland, mostly as a beverage. The anti-alcohol brigade was partly right, because consuming ether does cause dependence, but no withdrawal symptoms are prevalent.

Ether parties sprang up all over the world. Thomas Lint, a medical student at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, confessed: “We sit round a table and suck [on an inhaling apparatus], like many nabobs with their hookahs. It’s glorious, as you will see from this analysis of a quarter of an hour’s jolly good suck.” He then went on to describe several “ethereal” experiences he and his fellow classmates had while under the influence of the newly discovered substance.

Ether wasn’t just inhaled. It was also drunk, like alcohol. In Ireland, the substance replaced whiskey for a while, due to its low cost (a penny a draught). After drinking a glass of water, “ethermaniacs” would take a drop of the drug on their tongues while pinching their noses and chasing it with another glass of water. Taken this way, ether hit the user hard and fast. Dr. Ernest Hart wrote that “the immediate effects of drinking ether are similar to those produced by alcohol, but everything takes place more rapidly.”

Recovery was just as swift. Those taken into custody for drunken disorderliness were often completely sober by the time they reached the police station, with the bonus that they also suffered no hangover. In this way, 19th-century revelers could take draughts of ether several times a day, with little consequence[2].
Even in the Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel and subsequent movie 'The Big Sleep' (1946) with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the detective Philip Marlowe, played by Bogart, drinks a mixture of ether and laudanum.

[1] Zandberg: “Villages … Reek of Ether Vapours”: Ether Drinking in Silesia before 1939 in Medical History – 2010. See here.
[2] Haynes: Ethermaniacs in BC Medical Journal – 2014

[Review] 'The Beauty of Murder' by A.K. Benedict

Usually reviews are constructed the same: a reviewer tells you a bit about the story, followed by his own thoughts and views. He then ends with a recommendation: to buy or not to bother.

I want to start this review of Alexandra Benedict's 'The Beauty of Murder' with my recommendation: if you're reading a book, just put it aside, order 'The Beauty of Murder' and prepare yourself for a treat. This book is not a usual mystery, but a guided voyage through your imagination. What sort of book is it, you might ask. Reviewers are not at all in agreement, but I would say this is a mystery that perfectly blends the supernatural and metaphysical. It reminds me somewhat of the splendidly written mysteries by Irish novelist John Connolly.

Jackamore Grass is a serial killer who is able to break the boundaries of time. But then Cambridge lecturer Stephen Killigan finds a body of a beauty queen who has been missing for a year. Only to discover that she's disappeared again without any trace of her ever being there. The police start questioning his sanity. Unknowingly he is being drawn into the dark and twisted world of Jackamore Grass. Darkness, once gazed upon, can never be lost.

A.K. Benedict writes with supreme confidence and is able to grip the reader's attention with perfect and elegant prose. So, by now you must have ordered your copy of 'The Beauty of Murder', because if you haven't, you've lost valuable time. Remember: time, once lost, cannot be regained. Unless, of course, your name is Jackamore Grass.

I'm already eagerly awaiting the publication of part two of the series, provisionally entitled 'The Cabinet of Shadows'.

Nightshade: an alternative etymology

Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is a highly toxic hallucinogen. Its cousin, the black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is partly edible.
The deadly nightshade is native to temperate southern and central Europe, but has been cultivated and introduced outside its native range. Its most northern frontier reaches Skåne in Sweden, where it was grown in apothecary gardens.

Yes, The deadly nightshade is one of the most toxic plants found in the Eastern Hemisphere (though it has been introduced in the Western hemisphere). On the other hand, the ripe berries and cooked leaves of the black nightshade are used as food in some locales and selected plant parts are used as a traditional medicine.

Right. The botanicals are now sorted. So where does the name 'nightshade' derive from?

The Etymology Dictionary predictably claims that Old English nihtscada literally means 'shade of night'. Yes, both in Dutch and German the same word is used for these plants: nachtschade (Dutch) and Nachtschatten (German). The Dictionary suggests that the name is perhaps an allusion to the poisonous black berries. A similar Swedish word was nattskata which meant a 'bat'. Bats were (and still are) shadows in the night.

So, nightshadow it or isn't it? In modern Dutch 'schade' means damage. Modern Frisian 'skea' has exactly the same meaning. That directs us to an alternative explanation of the word 'nightshade': the plant has berries that are as black as the night and these cause damage.

The Oracle of Delphi

From about 1400 BC to 400 AD, the Oracle of Delphi was considered one of the most sacred sites in all of ancient Greece. It is located on Mount Parnassus in Phocis some 200 kilometers northwest from Athens.

People from all walks of life made pilgrimages there to seek advice from the God Apollo, which was relayed to them by Pythia (Πῡθίᾱ), the High Priestess. Her often cryptic ramblings were highly regarded and affected everything from the outcome of wars to when farmers should plant their crops. No kingdom, city or private person could afford to make critical decisions without consulting the Pythia. Thanks to her prestige, Delphi also became the richest Hellenic sanctuary. The Greeks called it the omphalos, or 'navel of the world'.

One of the most famous example of her predictions or revelations was that of King Croesus of Lydia. Croesus asked at Delphi whether he should wage war against the Persians. He was told that, if he did, he would destroy a great empire. Taking the response to predict victory, he launched a military assault on Xerxes, the king of Persia. The oracle was right: Croesus did end up destroying an empire – his own.

The ancient sources describe two distinct types of prophetic trance experienced by the Pythia. First, and more normally, she would lapse into benign semi-consciousness, during which she remained seated on the tripod, responding to questions—though in a strangely altered voice. According to Plutarch, once the Pythia recovered from this trance, she was in a composed and relaxed state, like a runner after a race. A second kind of trance involved a frenzied delirium characterized by wild movements of the limbs, harsh groaning and inarticulate cries. When the Pythia experienced this delirium, Plutarch reports, she died after only a few days—and a new Pythia took her place.

The Pythia entered her trance by inhaling sweet-smelling noxious fumes coming from deep fissures underneath the temple, according to the ancient historian Plutarch.

At first, a lack of evidence led modern archaeologists to dismiss Plutarch’s observations, but it appears the ancients were right after all. Tests showed that the waters of a nearby spring showed the presence of methane and ethane, which can be intoxicating, as well as ethylene[1].
Ethylene was later widely used as an anesthetic in the first half of the 20th century[2]. In small doses, ethylene stimulates the central nervous system, causing hallucinations and emits a sweet odor. However, it was not particularly successful as an anesthetic, because high concentrations were needed to achieve unconsciousness and it was dangerously explosive.

[1] De Boer et al: New evidence of the geological origins of the ancient Delphic oracle (Greece) in Geology – 2001
[2] Spiller et al: The Delphic oracle: a multidisciplinary defense of the gaseous vent theory in Journal of Toxicology – 2002

Dämmerschlaf or Twilight Sleep

Most of us are familiar with the German term Götterdämmerung, which translates as 'Twilight of the Gods' or more correctly as 'Gods' Twilight'. Another concept is Dämmerschlaf or 'Twilight Sleep', which became popular in the beginning of the twentieth century[1].

The treatment of choice for childbirth pains during the latter half of the 1800s was chloroform. The anaesthetic qualities of chloroform were first described in 1842. On November 4th, 1847, the Scottish doctor James Young Simpson first used the anesthetic qualities of chloroform on a pair of friends at a dinner party. This was done purely as entertainment rather than being a medical procedure.
Between about 1865 and 1920, chloroform was used in about 90% of all narcoses performed in the UK, but complications were many. The problem was that chloroform causes depression of the central nervous system (CNS), ultimately producing deep coma, respiratory center depression and death.

The search was on for a safer means of sedation.

Twilight sleep was developed in Germany around 1900. It is an amnesic condition characterized by insensitivity to pain without loss of consciousness, induced by an injection of morphine (from opium) and scopolamine (from the deadly nightshade) in order to relieve the pain of childbirth. This combination, which mimics the Greek nepenthe, induces a semi-narcotic state which produces the experience of childbirth without pain. However, some scientists state that women do feel the – sometimes - excruciating pain, but the drug removes all memory of that pain.

Pain can lead to all sorts of long-term traumatic effects, such as a postpartum depression. In the end it doesn't really matter if a woman does not feel the pain or simply does not remember the pain she had experienced.

The combination of morphine and scopolamine entered mainstream medical use around 1907, but it also had its drawbacks. In the end the drug was discontinued because it had depressive effects on the central nervous system of the infant. This resulted in a drowsy newborn with poor breathing capacity.

[1] Marx: Historische Entwicklung der Geburtsanästhesie in Anaesthesist - 1987

Nepenthe

In Ancient Greek, nepenthe (νηπενθές) was once a medicine to counter or treat sorrow. It is one of the earliest anti-depressants known as it literally means 'not-sorrow' from ne (νη) 'not' and penthos (πένθος) 'grief', 'sorrow' or 'mourning'.
The origin of this medication has been lost in the mists of time, but we do know that Egyptian medicine was the basis of Greek medicine. Many Greek doctors, among them Hippocrates, visited Egypt to study and understand medicine[1].

In Homeros' Odyssey (Bk IV:220-281) we find possibly the earliest surviving references to nepenthe: ...εἰς οἶνον βάλε φάρμακον, ἔνθεν ἔπινον, νηπενθές τ᾽ ἄχολόν τε, κακῶν ἐπίληθον ἁπάντων ('in the wine she put a drug, for them to drink, the nepenthes, which gives the forgetfulness of all evils'). It is not possible to identify it by comparing it to the effects of other well know substances that were used to 'treat' psychological problems, such as opium, cannabis or kyphi, the incense that was used in Ancient Egypt for religious and medical purposes[2].

While wine was extensively use to lighten peoples minds and hearts, it was also a vehicle for drugs. The Homeric texts gives us two pieces of the puzzle: [a] nepenthe must have been a plant-based substance, since, as Homer says, it is one of those products grown in the Egyptian fields, and [b] it must have been solid, because it was stated that it was put it into wine rather than poured.

Although deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) itself was poisonous, combined with opium it produced a sort of twilight sleep that blurred the memory of pain without loss of consciousness. Whether it also would let you forget sorrow is disputed, but if true it would make it a type of laudanum avant la lettre.

Nepenthe had antidepressant properties, much like the golden root (Rhodiola rosea), which is still extensively used today for its antidepressant effects[3]. Did I just solve an age-old mystery? We shall never know the answer.

[1] Rossi: Homer and Herodotus to Egyptian medicine in Vesalius - 2010
[2] Kakridis: Nepenthe in Psychiatriki - 2011
[3] Amsterdam et al: Rhodiola rosea L. as a putative botanical antidepressant in Phytomedicine - 2016

Laudanum

Paracelsus (1493-1541) was a Swiss-German alchemist who is still known by his adage 'Alle Dinge sind Gift und nichts ist ohne Gift, allein die Dosis macht es, dass ein Ding kein Gift ist' (All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dosage makes that a thing isn't poison) or shortened 'Sola dosis facit venenum' (The dose makes the poison).

During his studies he discovered that the alkaloids in opium are far more soluble in alcohol than in water. After much experimenting, Paracelsus found a specific tincture of opium that was of considerable use in reducing pain. He called this preparation 'laudanum', probably derived from the Latin verb laudare, which meant 'to praise'. It may even be that the name is a sort of equivalent to 'Eureka' (from Greek heureka) 'I have found (it),' supposedly shouted by Archimedes (ca 287-212 BC). Therefore it may all have started with the exclamation laudate Dominum ('praise the Lord').
While Paracelsus' medication contained all sorts of expensive ingredients, such as crushed pearls, saffron, nutmeg, musk and amber, only the opium and alcohol would have a 'therapeutic' effect. In Victorian times, the mixture consisted roughly of 10% opium and 90% alcohol. Reddish-brown of colour and extremely bitter, laudanum contained almost all the opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine. Its high morphine concentration and alcohol make it a potent narcotic. While laudanum was historically used to treat a large variety of ailments, its principal use was as an analgesic.

Laudanum was the 'aspirin of the nineteenth century' and was widely used in Victorian households as a painkiller, recommended for a broad range of ailments including cough, diarrhea, rheumatism, 'women's troubles', cardiac disease and even delirium tremens. It was cheap: an ounce of laudanum would cost about the same as a pint of beer. It's most infamous use in Victorian Britain was as infants' quietener. Children were often given Godfrey's Cordial (also called Mother's Friend), consisting of opium, water, treacle, just to keep them quiet. The potion had detrimental effects and resulted in deaths and severe illnesses of countless babies and children. It was further recommended for colic diarrhea, vomiting, hiccups, pleurisy, rheumatism, catarrhs and cough.


Laudanum addicts would enjoy highs of euphoria followed by deep lows of depression, along with slurred speech and restlessness. Withdrawal symptoms included aches and cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea but even so, it was not until the early 20th century that it was recognised as addictive. Until that time, laudanum could be bought without a prescription

A.K. Benedict: Death is a great mystery

[This article by A.K. Benedict previously appeared in Shots - Crime & Thriller eZine]

Death is the greatest of mysteries. After all, it figures in almost every crime novel. And certainly in every life. It hides, patiently waiting, not letting itself be known till right at the end like the very best of antagonists.

Often viewed in this culture as something to be feared, death is ignored where possible, as if looking at it will draw its attention your way. Many avoid planning their funeral because they don’t like to think of dying. Somewhere along the century, we have lost the art of dying.
Crime fiction at its best does not flinch from death. It holds it up as a reality to be respected and railed against. Of course, there is no common approach. There are those deaths that take place off screen and those that are vivid and violent. Some are investigated until the violating perpetrator is caught, death’s scapegoat slain so we can go home knowing that death is for someone else today; for others there is no balancing justice for a life ripped away.
I knew I wanted to explore death in my 'Jonathan Dark or The Evidence of Ghosts' from early on in the planning stage. I was grieving at the time: for friends and family members, for pets, for a marriage and felt unable to talk freely about loss. Then I saw a tweet about the Death Salon 2014 in London. Held at St Barts Pathology Lab in London, the talks on each day of the conference represented a part of the dying process: the first was about preparation for death, the second day about the act of dying itself and the final day was about after death. It was attended by undertakers, mortuary assistants, archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, artists, dark tourism specialists, writers... and all were keen to discuss death in an open way. I left as a passionate advocate of the Death-Positive movement, feeling joyous, excited and that death was a friend reminding me to live now.

The Death Salon helped me to not only exorcise some of my own ghosts but also to clarify my conception of a ghost-locked world in Jonathan Dark (not least because I was wandering around Smithfield’s after the first day - possibly inebriated - and thought I saw the spirit of a butcher carrying a side of beef). Personifying the things that haunt every one of us meant that I could look at loss square on as well as through a spectral veil, placing death as a narrative arc as much as life.

Crime fiction whips the sheet off the spectre of death and exposes it to the light. The greatest mystery is never solved but, in acknowledging it, shadows skitter; ghosts retreat and we can begin living right now.

PS - It’s a good idea to have a Death Wish List: what you’d like for a funeral, whether to be buried or cremated, etc. If you don’t, there may never be that New Orleans marching band playing David Bowie songs. That’s mine, by the way, just so now it’s written down for posterity. I’d also like gothic cupcakes, gin and tonics, and karaoke at the wake. You’re all invited.

Dentistry in Victorian times

Without proper care teeth may decay very quickly, but even in Paleolithic times - up to about 10,000 years before the present era – patients were already treated for their dental caries[1]. Still, being treated does not equal proper treatment at all and extraction of a decaying molar was almost the only treatment available for toothache until the middle of the 19th century.
People had to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea, because infections in your teeth might eventually form an abscess that may ate away a jawbone. The agony of the toothache would become too great to bear and in despair one would seek treatment.

If you were lucky there might be a tot of whisky to numb the pain but otherwise all that could be offered was a prayer. The result was that tens of thousands of patients died from botched treatment, infections and other complications. In 1665, the year of the Great Plague, the bubonic plague killed an estimated 100,000 people, almost a quarter of London's population in just 18 months. It is now estimated that one in ten of the non-plague related deaths in London were linked to toothache.

Until relatively recently rotten, painful and neglected teeth were a part of everyday life. Proper dentists didn’t exist until the 1800s and prior to that the care of your ivory was in the hands of blacksmiths and barbers who doubled as surgeons. They simply wielded pliers to pull decaying teeth.

However in the late 18th century more efforts were made to understand dentistry. In 1771, John Hunter, a failed doctor, published his book entitled 'Natural History Of The Human Teeth'[2]. In it he suggested a scientific approach and devised names for all the teeth, which are still in use today. But he also proposed transplanting teeth from the dead to the living and it soon became a craze. The rich paid the poor – especially children – to 'donate' their teeth. Unfortunately for some unlucky recipients, syphilis and tuberculosis were unknowingly transmitted into their mouths from infected donors.
The first drills were only introduced in the Victorian era. They rotated slowly but as a method of removing the rotten part of a tooth at least it was an alternative to the dreaded extraction. Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, was the first chemical used for pain relief. This idea from Horace Wells (1815-1848) was soon discredited and other solutions tried, including chloroform, but doses were not precise and deaths were common.

Cocaine was also used as a painkiller and was injected directly into the jaw. The copper needles used were huge but it was a whole lot safer than chloroform and came with the added advantage of targeting the source of pain.

[1] Oxilia et al: Earliest evidence of dental caries manipulation in the Late Upper Paleolithic in Scientific Reports – 2015
[2] King: John Hunter and The Natural History of Human Teeth: Dentistry, Digestion, and the Living Principle in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences – 1994

Arsenic as a panacea in Victorian times

In Victorian society it was widely believed that arsenic could actually help to treat a myriad of problems and some doctors even prescribed it as a cure for conditions including malaria, rheumatism, worms and morning sickness.

Their belief in the medicinal properties of arsenic was based on the Medieval notion that the body was out of kilter during illness and that the violent symptoms it produced could somehow shock it back into balance.
For example, the Tanjore pill - a varying mixture of arsenic, mercury and black pepper - was a popular anti-venom among British forces in India[1]. Dr Livingstone (1813-1873) announced, from the very heart of Africa, that arsenic seemed to counter the bite of the tsetse fly. To this day, some African people believe in the therapeutic effects of the poison[2].

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) took arsenic to treat his eczema while at university, something that could even explain his lifetime of documented ill-health. Physicians also maintained that it could cure asthma, thus directing patients to smoke pipes in which tobacco was mixed with the lethal poison. Today we know that even low-level arsenic exposure has deleterious respiratory effects[3].

Yes, very small doses of arsenic can stimulate circulation and increase weight gain. There was great excitement in 1851 when a Viennese medical journal reported on the sexual benefits which arsenic consumption was supposed to have brought the peasantry of Styria (German: Steiermark) - a once remote mountainous region in Austria[4]. The Styrians commonly swallowed quantities well above the lethal dose, but they ingested it in solid lumps which passed almost intact through their digestive tracts. Just enough was absorbed to increase blood flow, giving the women a rosy-cheeked glow and the men an increased libido, resulting in an inordinate number of illegitimate children in the region.
British manufacturers began selling an array of beauty products for women, including Dr Simms Arsenic Complexion Wafers and Medicated Arsenic Soap, with predictable results. One woman who took arsenic to get rid of spots on her face died within a few days. Arsenic-based shampoos were said to reverse baldness, but left hundreds of embarrassed users with painfully inflamed scalps.

As for claims that arsenic might work as some kind of Victorian Viagra, it was reported that one British man had adopted the Styrian practice and become notorious for his 'amorous propensities' - only to die shortly afterwards. Few were as foolish as him, but even those who did not use arsenic found it was a near-inescapable hazard in 19th-century society. For example, wallpaper proved particularly hazardous.

[1] Raman et al: The arsenic and mercury-containing Tanjore pills used in treating snake bites in the 18th century Madras Presidency in Current Science – 2014. See here.
[2] Eperon et al: Treatment options for second-stage gambiense human African trypanosomiasis in Expert Review of Anti-infective Therapy – 2014
[3] Das et al: Chronic low-level arsenic exposure reduces lung function in male population without skin lesions in International Journal of Public Health – 2014
[4] Wallau: The Phenomenon of the Styrian Arsenic Eaters from the Perspective of Literature, Chemistry, Toxicology, and History of Science-"Strong Poison" or "Simple-Minded Reasoning"? in Angewandte Chemie 2014