Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What’s the Deal with Vril?

Fans of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comic book series have heard of it and it’s name has become synonymous with a popular British food product, but what exactly is Vril?

In 1870 English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton published a science fiction story called Vril: The Power of the Coming Race. The story was told in first person by an anonymous narrator who claimed to have come into contact with a subterranean race of angel-like beings called the Vril-ya. In Bulwer-Lytton’s story the Vril-ya powered their entire civilization with a mystic, infinitely renewable energy source called Vril which could be used for everything from medicine to weaponry to bathwater.

Vril was an immediate best seller, but not for the reasons Bulwer-Lytton had anticipated. As it would turn out people all over Europe thought that the story was true and that there really was a subterranean race in possession of an all powerful energy source. "Vril Societies" began to spring up, primarily in England, France, and Germany. These were groups of people who dedicated their spare time – which they apparently had ample amounts of – to trying to make contact with the Vril-ya, and by 1873 some people began claiming that they indeed had.

The idea that so many people would believe that a work of fiction was fact may strike us as odd today (though one only needs to think of The DaVinci Code phenomena a few years back to see a contemporary example) but the truth was that in the late 19th-Century people were actually used to hearing claims such as those made by Bulwer-Lytton’s narrator, and usually the people making them wanted to be taken seriously.

The most famous example of this is undoubtedly the Russian occultist and medium Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) who as early as 1870 claimed to be in contact with an advance race of beings known as the “mahātmās” who were hidden away deep within the Tibetan Mountains. Many of Blavatsky’s claims were even more sensational than those found in Vril, however unlike Bulwer-Lytton, Blavatsky meant every word of it and just like with Vril people believed her. In 1875 Blavatsky founded The Theosophical Society, an organization dedicated to spreading the spiritual and religious teachings of the “mahātmās.” Chances are that Blavatsky’s “mahātmās” were no more real than Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril-ya, but just the same before her death in 1891 over twenty-five people claimed to have personally encountered the “mahātmās” and many hundreds more professed to believing they existed.

By the late 1880s businesses even began cashing in on people’s belief in the Vril-ya and Vril, both of which had gained widespread recognition. It was in 1889 that Scottish grocer John Lawson Johnston founded the Bovril Company which produced a thick, salty beef extract similar to gravy. The name of the product, Bovril, was a combination of the words Bovine and Vril which helped the product to become an instant British staple as it was seen as being the “food of the master race” as author Ian Crofton puts it.

Belief in the reality of Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril continued right up into the 1930s and just like in Mignola’s Hellboy comics it wasn’t long before the Nazi’s got involved. In 1938, SS leader Heinrich Himmler organized an expedition to travel to Tibet and attempt to make contact with the Vril-ya. The prevailing idea amongst some of the Nazi Parties’ occult specialists was that the Vril-ya were ancestors of the “Aryan race,” though some in their ranks disagreed. However, even if it turned out that this wasn’t the case the Nazis were still assured that the Vril-ya would at least have some cool Vril powered super-weapons which would help them take over the world.

It should surprise no one to learn that in addition to the Vril-ya, Himmler’s expedition also hoped to make contact with Blavatsky’s “mahātmās” as well. It should also surprise no one to learn that the expedition failed to make contact with either the Vril-ya or the “mahātmās” or any other advance subterranean race on this expedition or the six subsequent expeditions which followed. One thing you can say about the Nazis is that even when their wrong their persistent.

After World War II belief in the literal reality of Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril began to fade and the various "Vril Societies" began to disband. People finally figured out that Vril was indeed a work of science fiction and not fact. Nevertheless, the legacy of Vril – no matter how mythological it may have been – continues on even today. The original book by Bulwer-Lytton is still in print (though it now resides in public domain) and the Bovril Company is still around making their Bovril beef gravy. The Vril-ya themselves also continue to pop-up from time to time in comics, music, TV, books, and yes conspiracy theories in which it is still whispered that they might be real.

…The Theosophical Society persists to this day.

Pictures: Top Left: Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (2008 Edition) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Center: A Bovril advertisement from 1892 depicts Bovril as an "infalible power" on par with the Pope.

Sources: The Totally Useless History of the World (2007) by Ian Crofton, Hollow Earth : The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface (2006) by David Standish and Lost Lands, Forgotten Realms (2007) by Dr. Bob Curran.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mythology in Music: Avenged Sevenfold’s “Beast and the Harlot”

California based rock band Avenged Sevenfold are known for their biblical reference laden lyrics. Even their band’s name is a direct reference to the tale of Cain and Able, where God pronounces that whoever slays Cain will have vengeance poured out upon them “sevenfold” (Gen. 4:15).

Their hit single “Beast and the Harlot” off their sophomore album City of Evil (2005) is a particularly notable example as it is a retelling of the story of the Whore of Babylon from the Book of Revelation (Chapter 17). In Revelation the Whore of Babylon is a key player in the apocalyptic events that are described as unfolding at the end of time. She is imagined as being “clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication” while astride “a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names” and with “seven heads and ten horns.” She will seduce the kings of the earth and will drink “the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.” Some scholars have interpreted the Whore of Babylon as an anti-Virgin Mary, the mother of the Antichrist, and wife of the devil.

In the accompanying music video the Whore of Babylon is depicted as a sexual seductress, the black tar symbolizing sin is taken from Dante’s Inferno.

This shining city built of gold, a far cry from innocence,
There's more than meets the eye round here, look to the waters of the deep.
A city of evil.
There sat a seven-headed beast, ten horns raised from his head.
Symbolic woman sits on his throne, but hatred strips her and leaves her naked.
The Beast and the Harlot.

She's a dwelling place for demons.
She's a cage for every unclean spirit,
every filthy bird and makes us drink the poisoned wine to fornicating with our kings.
Fallen now is Babylon the Great.

The city dressed in jewels and gold, fine linen, myrrh and pearls.
Her plagues will come all at once as her mourners watch her burn.
Destroyed in an hour.
Merchants and captains of the world, sailors, navigators too.
Will weep and mourn this loss with her sins piled to the sky,
The Beast and the Harlot.

She's a dwelling place for demons.
She's a cage for every unclean spirit,
every filthy bird and makes us drink the poisoned wine to fornicating with our kings.
Fallen now is Babylon the Great.

The day has come for all us sinners.
If you’re not a servant, you’ll be struck to the ground.
Flee the burning, greedy city.
Lookin’ back on her to see there's nothing around.

I don’t believe in fairytales and no one wants to go to hell.
You've made the wrong decision and it's easy to see.
Now if you wanna serve above or be a king below with us,
You're welcome to the city where your future is set forever.

She’s a dwelling place for demons.
She’s a cage for every unclean spirit,
every filthy bird and makes us drink the poisoned wine to fornicating with our kings.
Fallen now is Babylon the Great.[x2]

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dogs in Myth and Legend: The Faithful Hound

This post was written for Deborah Parkhill Mullis at Metrolina Dog Reporter.

Dogs have been the faithful companions of mankind for well over 12,000-years and in that time have amassed their own unique body of legend and lore. Myths about dogs often revolve around one or more of the animal’s well known traits such as their skills as guardians or hunters. However above all it is a dog’s unwavering loyalty which has earned them a place in the annals of myth and folklore.

The “Faithful Hound” motif, one of the major folkloric archetypes, can be found around the world beginning in ancient Greece with Homer’s epic the Odyssey in which it is Odysseus’ faithful dog Argos who is the only one who recognizes the hero upon his return home; Odysseus had aged twenty-years and was disguised as a beggar when he reappeared.

One of the best known folktales to involve a “Faithful Hound” is the 18th-Century Welsh legend of the deerhound Gelert whose master, Prince Llewellyn, left his hound in charge of his infant son while he went out hunting. When the prince returned he found the room destroyed and his son’s cradle overturned, the baby nowhere in sight. It was then that Gelert appeared, his muzzle coated in blood. Horrified the prince assumed the worst, that his once beloved dog had slain his only heir. Drawing his sword the prince slew Gelert. It was only after the fact that the prince began to hear the baby’s muffled cries and proceeded to search the room where he discovered not only his son – alive and well beneath the overturned cradle – but the body of a dead wolf. It was then that the prince realized his horrible mistake.

Today Gelert’s grave, which is located in the village of Beddgelert, serves as a major tourist attraction. According to local folklore even the village’s name, Beddgelert, is believed to mean “Gelert’s Grave,” though this theory is largely dismissed by historians.

Gelert’s story may be based on that of another famous dog; the 13th-Century French greyhound Guinefort. Guinefort’s tale is almost identical to that of Gelert’s; Guinefort’s master, a knight from a castle near the city of Lyon, leaves the hound in charge of his infant child while he goes out. When he returns the room is in shambles and the child is missing, but there’s Guinefort mouth wet with blood. The knight slays the dog only to discover moments after that his child is alive, having been saved by the faithful dog from a deadly viper whose dead body lay nearby.

What makes Guinefort’s story unique from Gelert’s however, is what happens next. Distraught over the slaying of his faithful hound the knight buries the dog and erects a small shrine over the grave. As word spread concerning the events which lead to Guinefort’s death, local villagers began to regard the greyhound as something of a martyr. A local cult quickly began to form around the dog, now called Saint Guinefort, and mothers with ill or sickly children would bring them to Guinefort’s grave in hope of a miracle. The Catholic Church was none to happy about this however and quickly labeled the cult of St. Guinefort as a heresy inspired by the devil. The Inquisition was sent to deal with the cult but despite their best efforts was unable to stamp out the veneration of the dog which (according to some reports) lasted well into the 1940s!

Other examples of the “Faithful Hound” motif can be found in several contemporary near-legendary tales. One of these is the story of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier whose owner, John Grey, died in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1858 when Bobby was two-years-old. Grey was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard and Bobby attended the funeral. After the funeral Bobby refused to leave his master’s grave except for meals which he received at a local restaurant.

Tales of Bobby’s fidelity quickly spread across Scotland and then overseas transforming the steadfast pooch into a living legend. In order to make sure that Bobby was protected the children of Edinburgh donated their pocket money towards buying him a collar and the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir William Chambers, paid for the renewal of Bobby’s license making him the responsibility of the city council. Bobby was eventually awarded the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh; he is the only dog to ever receive this prestigious honor.

After fourteen years of faithfully waiting by his master’s graveside Bobby died on January 14th 1872. He was buried just inside the gate of Greyfriars Kirkyard, as close to his master’s grave as could be allowed. In 1981 The Dog Aid Society of Scotland erected a red granite tombstone over Bobby’s grave. In addition to this a statue of Greyfriars Bobby can be seen atop a fountain in Edinburgh’s Candlemaker Row in front of the Greyfriars Bobby pub.

A similar story to that of Greyfriars Bobby is that of Hachikō, an Akita from the city of Odate, Akita Prefecture, Japan. Hachikō’s owner was Dr. Ueno of Tokyo’s Imperial University. Everyday Dr. Ueno would board the train at Tokyo’s Shibuya Railway Station to go to work. When he returned in the evening Hachikō would be waiting. Then one evening in 1925 Dr. Ueno didn’t return home, he had died of a heart attack while at work earlier that day. Nevertheless Hachikō continued to show up every evening at the Shibuya Railway Station for the next ten years even after it became difficult for him to walk due to arthritis. When Hachikō died on March 8th 1935 at the age of twelve a National Day of Mourning was declared.

The year before, a bronze statue of Hachikō had been erected at Shibuya Railway Station. Unfortunately the statue was demolished during World War II so that the metal could be used for the war effort. After the war The Society for Recreating the Hachikō Statue had a second statue erected in August of 1948, it still stands at the Shibuya Railway Station today.

Sources: DK Eyewitness Books: Dogs (2004) by Juliet Clutton-Brock, The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature (2001) by Dr. Karl P.N. Shuker, and Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (2005) by Sabine Baring-Gould.