25 maio 2011

Why Are Vampires terrified of Garlic?

vampire garlicVampires, evil beings that fed on blood, have been particularly prevalent in in the 18th century. Although superstition may have originated from Western Europe, fear of vampires became wides spread and sent the whole of Europe into mass hysteria. A well-known defense against vampires is to chew garlic and have cloves of garlic around you at all times. Of course chewing garlic release a putrid smell that is almost impossible to get rid of. This is because upon chewing garlic a sulphur containing chemical called allicin is produced, and sulphur containing compounds (thiols) are well known to smell nasty. The smell is often associated with rotting eggs or rotting meat, and it this is exactly what people wanted as surrounding oneself with this smell is thought to offer protection against the evil vampires. The Romanians took this so far as to smear garlic on every nook and cranny (including their windows, doors, gates and even cows). Now the question begets, “Why is Garlic useful against vampires”; wouldn’t it be more logical propagate a myth where vampires are terrified something that smells good? If not, something that smells less vile.
One of the possible explanations for this odd belief is that garlic is known to have anti-bacterial qualities. Garlic was used to ward off various diseases such as the plague and it is believed to have many health benefits.  Infact, there have been many scientific studies (2)(3) showing the anti-bacterial properties of garlic. Asvampires were associated with “evil”, a category that diseases and plagues belong to, one might assume that garlic might also ward off this evil.
Another possibility is that garlic is natural mosquito repellent. Since vampires are also blood sucking fiends, having an odour of garlic might repel them away also.
A rather interesting hypothesis by the French Occultist Robert Ambelain (4)(5) is that the burning of arsenic compounds started off this whole trend. This might sound a bit preposterous, but there is certain logic to the argument. During the time vampires lore is dominant; Arsenic, a potent poison, was believed to hold power over evil (arsenic was also used in many folk medicines). This ideology was strongly held by many alchemists in major cities like Prague and Moravia at that time. When alchemists were hired to ward of vampires, they would burn arsenic containing compounds to provide the illusion that they are warding off evil with powerful evil slaying odours. These arsenic containing compounds when burnt would provide a nasty odour that smells exactly like that of chopped garlic. The peasants would of course notice this and make the connection that chewing garlic would produce the same effect and would be cheaper than hiring and alchemist (hence contributing to its spread and popularity). One critique of this theory is that garlic burning was localized to a few countries in Europe whilst Vampire lore was much more widespread.
One interesting twist to the story is an experimental study done in 1994 by Sandvik H et al (6). Devoid of real life vampires, the group used blood sucking leeches to try to find out if a garlic smeared hand would repel the leeches. As it turns out, the garlic actually attracted the leeches and decreased the amount of time it took to attach itself to the hand. They therefore proposed that garlic might actually attract vampires. This might not be a conclusive theory, but it is sure enough an ironic result. Perhaps they should try an experiment with vampire bats next time.
Of course there are many other other explanations, if you have have any ideas please post them below:
  1. Silver & Ursini, The Vampire Film, pp. 22–23.
  2. Cavallito, C. J.; Bailey, J. H., Allicin, the Antibacterial Principle of Allium sativum. I. Isolation, Physical Properties and Antibacterial Action. Journal of the American Chemical Society 1944,66 (11), 1950-1951.
  3. Farbman, K. S.; Barnett, E. D.; Bolduc, G. R.; Klein, J. O., Antibacterial Activity of Garlic and Onions: A Historical Perspective. The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal1993,12 (7), 613.
  4. http://www.shroudeater.com/agarlic.htm
  5. William R Cullen, Is Arsenic an Aphrodisiac?: The Sociochemistry of an Element, William R Cullen
  6. Tidsskr Nor Laegeforen. 1994 Dec 10;114(30):3583-6. 

Praise for Science Diction, a most generous column from Science Friday

The Origin Of The Word 'Robot'

Federal Theatre Project presentation of "R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)" by Karel Čapek (1890-1935). WPA image.
Robot is a relative newcomer to the English language. It was the brainchild of the Czech playwright, novelist and journalist Karel Čapek, who introduced it in his 1920 hit play, R.U.R., orRossum's Universal Robots. Science historian Howard Markel discusses how Čapek thought up the word.
For many, the word robot conjures an image of a mechanical being clad in metal, adorned with all sorts of blinking lights and buttons, and even a funny-sounding voice. Indeed, such robots have become stock characters in science fictions stories, novels, films and television shows.
More recently, robots—and the derived term robotics—have come to represent the most modern engineering technologies for a myriad of functions ranging from artificial intelligence experiments and building automobiles to performing delicate surgical procedures.
As a word, robot is a relative newcomer to the English language. It was the brainchild of a brilliant Czech playwright, novelist and journalist named Karel Čapek (1880-1938) who introduced it in his 1920 hit play, R.U.R., or Rossum's Universal Robots.
Robot is drawn from an old Church Slavonic word, robota, for "servitude," "forced labor" or "drudgery." The word, which also has cognates in German, Russian, Polish and Czech, was a product of the central European system of serfdom by which a tenant’s rent was paid for in forced labor or service.
Taking its cues from other literary accounts of scientifically created life forms such as Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein and the Yiddish-Czech legend The Golem, R.U.R. tells the story of a company using the latest biology, chemistry and physiology to mass produce workers who "lack nothing but a soul." The robots perform all the work that humans preferred not to do and, soon, the company is inundated with orders. In early drafts of his play, Čapek named these creatures labori, after the Latinate root for labor, but worried that the term sounded too "bookish." At the suggestion of his brother, Josef, Čapek ultimately opted for roboti, or in English, robots.
In the play’s final act, the robots revolt against their human creators. After killing most of the people living on the planet, the robots realize they need humans because none of them can figure out the means to manufacture more robots—a secret that dies out with the last human being. In the end, there is a deux ex machina moment, when two robots somehow acquire the human traits of love and compassion and go off into the sunset to make the world anew.
Audiences loved the play across Europe and the United States. Soon after, robots became the darling of science fiction writers, most famously Isaac Asimov, who composed the 3 Laws of Robotics and, eventually, Hollywood’s dream merchants. With each iteration, robots became more fleshly and life-like, or should I say humanoid?
Ironically, R.U.R. was Čapek’s least favorite work even as the play and his coining of robot ensured his literary immortality. He died of influenza in 1938 at the age of 48. Because of his so-called subversive writings against the rising Nazi party, his fatal bout of flu frustrated and outwitted Hitler and the Gestapo, who had put a death warrant on Čapek.

Map of the World's Religions - in Russian .)

05 maio 2011

How to recognize vampires, and how they spread their wings into the fictions of the Western world

From the TLS:

The vampire first sank its fangs into the British imagination in the early eighteenth century when accounts began to emerge from remote parts of Habsburg Europe of the superstitions of its recently colonized subjects. Austrian administrators, in control of new territory south of the Carpathians, encountered panic-stricken locals full of tales of the rapacious undead, of mysterious infirmities ravaging the peasants and suspicious coffins containing cadavers with fresh blood on their lips. Roger Luckhurst, in his introduction to the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, notes the notorious case of Peter Plogojowitz, in 1725, who “had been dead and buried for ten weeks” but was nonetheless blamed by villagers for a spate of sudden deaths, apparent strangulations. When the Imperial Provisor finally agreed to open the grave, lest the peasants “be obliged to forsake the village”, his delegation observed, along with “other wild signs”, a bloodied mouth, long fingernails and evidence of healthy skin on the corpse. The body was promptly staked through the heart and incinerated. While Luckhurst elucidates the sociological background to this event, noting that vampirism may flare “at times of political tyranny and in plague seasons”, it is Michael Sims, in Dracula’s Guest, who provides the rather more straightforward explanation for the gruesome apparition. Fingernails do not grow after death but the skin does shrink, “making the nails look abnormally long and clawlike”. Meanwhile, skin may appear flushed once the top layer is “sloughed off” and blood can pool around the facial cavities, especially if the body is placed face down. As for the unmentionable “other wild signs”, “the genitals often inflate during decomposition”.
The case of poor Plogojowitz was not the first to capture the attention of Western Europe. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s Voyage to the Levant (posthumously published in 1717) had already alerted the French to the case of the Greek vampire, or “vroucolaca”, who was killed by his fellow citizens in a similar manner. Fifteen years later, the London Journal reported on some inquiries into “vampyres” at Madreyga in Hungary (a story later referred to by John Polidori) and thus, according to Luckhurst, was recorded the first use of the word in English, although the OED dates its provenance to 1734 in Travels of Three English Gentlemen (subsequently published in the Harleian Miscellany). By 1741 the term was commonly used as a synonym for a “cruel exactor or extortioner”. In keeping with the characteristics of the creature it signifies, the etymology of the word is harder to pin down, “vampire” having been variously attributed to the Chuvash word väpär, meaning “bad ghost”; the Tatar ubyr (“witch”); and, perhaps more tenuously, to the ancient Greek king Amphiaraus. More comprehensible are the anxieties on which vampirism is founded: fears of plague-ridden corpses in crowded cemeteries, of premature burial and mortal overreaching, not to mention expressions of troubled Christianity and overstretched imperialism. “Serbian vampirism suggested the vulnerability of the House of Habsburg”, writes Erik Butler in his lively study Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film; it also reflected the religious instability in the Balkan borderlands between Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Islam. While it is probably safe to say that humans have been haunted by the hungry undead ever since they got a whiff of their own mortality, the vampire itself is, for Butler, a site- and time-specific thing, rather than the universally recognizable figure that Christopher Frayling has called “as old as the world”. Butler is not convinced that the vampire was “ever a cultural figure to be found the world over”, and Luckhurst would seem to agree, describing it as a “thoroughly modern being”.
In many ways, 1732 was the vampire’s annus mirabilis. Butler, whose cultural history starts at this date, notes “twelve books and four dissertations” on the subject published over that year and the next, as well as the term’s apparent enshrinement in the English language. By 1755, the Empress Maria Theresa was forced to issue a decree forbidding the “execution” of these much-maligned beasts and further infamy came when Carl Linnaeus and the Comte de Buffon started naming species of bats after them. It would, however, be some time before the vampire hardened into today’s set of universal, if shifting, clichés – the pteropine associations, for example, coming after the naturalists’ classifications. Early vampires took many forms: aristocrat, peasant, avenger, suitor, sodomite, demon bride. Two recent collections of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century vampire lore and literature attest to the creatures’ versatility, as well as to their enduring appeal. The vampire may long since have fallen prey to kitsch, its poster boy, Dracula, becoming “a somewhat pathetic figure” (in the words of Butler) and its home more likely to be the Sunnydale of Buffy than the Boreas-whipped forests of the Carpathians, but we remain in many ways enthralled by the bloodsuckers. Perhaps the appearance of these books indicates, if nothing else, a desire to revisit our original fears, an impulse to go back to vampire basics.
Michael Sims’s Dracula’s Guest is an agreeable compilation, starting with early eighteenth-century accounts from Hungary about vampire-slaying (including that of the ubiquitous Plogojowitz) and ending with its title story, an oft-published segment of an early draft of Bram Stoker’s vampire classic in which Jonathan Harker has a pre-Transylvanian brush with the uncanny on Walpurgis Night in Bavaria and is saved from “the jaws of the wolf” by a long-range intervention from the Count. Each story is prefaced by Sims with a useful bit of background, and the collection is arranged chronologically. It is by no means comprehensive but contains some favourites of the genre, including Byron’s unfinished “The End of My Journey” and John Polidori’s famous follow-up “The Vampyre” (1819), as well as less well-known translations of French and German tales. “Wake Not the Dead” (1823), attributed to Johann Ludwig Tieck, is an engrossing morality story in which an aristocratic lover, Walter of Burgundy, indulges in a spot of Faustian necromancy, raising his dead bride Brunhilda via a supernatural intermediary with disastrous consequences. Here the vampirism is underlaid with a suggestion that we are all capable of going to the dark side simply by dint of our mortality: “That which from life is pluck’d, becomes the foe / Of life, and whoso wakes it waketh woe”. Having “rashly dared to tear aside the awful veil that separates the mortality that dreams, from that which dreameth not”, and then, given the chance to repent, indulged himself in three days of “pleasure and festivity”, Walter is crushed by a vampire serpent and his castle consumed by fire.
Also censured for his sins is the priest in Théophile Gautier’s story “The Deathly Lover” (1843), in which the division between sleep and wakefulness is fruitfully explored. A good clergyman by day, the Brother is visited at night by a Lileth-like creature who “certainly did not come from the womb of Eve”, and who finally feasts on him with a curious sophistication: “She sipped the blood slowly and carefully like a gourmand who enjoys a glass of sherry or Syracuse wine”. When he willingly submits to this demon by day, it is terrifying thoughts of God and virtue that come to inhabit his nightmares. Aleksei Tolstoy’s rather more urbane protagonist in “The Family of Vourdalak” (1839) gets his vampiric comeuppance as punishment for flouting codes of gentility. The story is set during M d’Urfé’s youth in 1758, a time in which “mythology was very fashionable”. A rake well versed in the arts of galanterie, d’Urfé is forced into more direct wooing when he meets a Serbian peasant girl called Sdenka “too naïve to comprehend fully what I meant”. By the time Sdenka lets him have what he means, her entire family has become vampirized by external forces. Despite “my vague sense of foreboding”, but aroused by a feeling “part fear, part excitement”, d'Urfé persists in his courtship, fleeing in the nick of time pursued by Sdenka’s familial coterie in a foreshadowing of the genre's spoof future. Her young brother is catapulted on to d’Urfé’s steed (“the little brat sunk his teeth into my horse’s neck”) and her grandfather is seen “propel[ling] himself forward” with the stake ripped from his heart “as the Tyrolean mountain men do when they leap over Alpine chasms”. Similarly florid prose is found in James Malcolm Rymer’s 109-instalment epic Varney the Vampyre (1845–7), the first chapter of which is reproduced here in all its pathetically fallacious glory: “Oh, how the storm raged! Hail–rain–wind. It was, in very truth, an awful night”. The feverish “What Was It?” by Fitz-James O’Brien (1859), which contains the memorable refutation of vampire-spotting – “You have been smoking too much opium” – keeps its assailant invisible and doesn’t deign to name it.
Dracula’s Precursors, edited by David Annwn, contains three stories, two of which are also reproduced in Dracula’s Guest. The one that isn’t, “The Last Lords of Gardonal” (1867), by William Gilbert, features a rare instance of the vampire vigilante, who wreaks her revenge – and that of the downtrodden villagers she represents – on a despotic Alpine baron. Having unsuccessfully pursued a pretty young peasant with a ruthlessness that causes her murder, the Baron is revisited by a new incarnation of his late beloved, who gives him a taste of his own medicine. As Annwn points out, the vampirism here is unusual for being morally “sanctioned”. The other stories in this slim collection are the anonymously published “The Mysterious Stranger” (1860) and “Let Loose” (1890) by Mary Cholmondeley. The former is a clear prefiguration of Dracula (Stoker is thought to have read the story) and plays on the notion of the willing victim. Like Lucy Westenra, its heroine-victim Franziska is a sexually adventurous woman, bored by her “flat” and “ennuyant” Teutonic homeland and eager to find a “bold, aspiring, even despotic” husband. On an adventure in the Carpathians, she and her retinue meet a tall, thin, “well built” aristocratic stranger with “cold grey eyes”, apparently averse to eating, who talks in riddles, dislikes the sun and can silence the wolves. Like certain dybbuks of Jewish folklore, not to mention Stoker’s Count who “may not enter anywhere at the first”, the vampire must be invited in, however unwittingly, by his hosts: “‘You press the invitation?’ asked the stranger earnestly and decidedly”. In the end, he is overpowered by a man with a false hand (the original having been lost to war in Turkey) who is possessed of an uncanny strength which makes the vampire believe him to be a kindred spirit.
This triumph of technology over folklore plays on common vampire themes. In Cholmondeley’s “Let Loose”, the vampire-troubled backwater of Wet Waste-on-the-Wolds is notable for its pre-industrial isolation: “I had no idea that in these days of penny posts and cheap newspapers such entire ignorance of the outer world could have existed in any corner, however remote, of Great Britain”. Stoker’s Dracula is himself notoriously out of touch, a naive if dastardly bumpkin with a “child brain” who cuts a ridiculous figure in London dressed in a straw hat which “suit[s] not him or the time”. As Butler points out, Dracula may control the “snail mail”, but he is “stuck in the past” when it comes to the “ultramodern and fast technologies” of the typewriter and telegram and he is undone by the efficient “system of information management” organized by his foes. “Simply replace colonialism with globalization, ministries with multinationals, and telegraphy with the Internet”, writes Butler, and “the Count continues to offer an allegory for economic, bureaucratic, and technological changes in the world.”
In “Good Lady Ducayne” (1896) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, medical science is the enemy, the vampire itself. Lady Ducayne, an ageing aristocrat, “a little old figure, wrapped from chin to feet in an ermine mantle”, hires a blooming young companion from Walworth called Bella to accompany her to Italy. Also in attendance is the mysterious Dr Parravicini, a practitioner of “experimental surgery” who is well versed in “all the new theories”. As Bella’s health declines and her dreams fill with “strange sensations . . . the whirring of wheels”, it becomes clear that she is providing the packed lunch for her holidaying employer. Only intervention by a more conventional modern doctor can save her. “I want my life prolonged young man”, rasps the hungry Lady Ducayne as the good medic watches aghast: “He had seen terrible faces in the hospital . . . but he had never seen a face that impressed him so painfully as this withered countenance, with its indescribable horror of death outlived”. As ever, the horror here comes from the usurpation of the future by the past, of progression by obsolescence. And while this is also true of much Gothic literature, the vampire, more malleable than most, is a vehicle for pandering to universal fears, of life being sapped by death, of health by disease, of the deserving by the selfish, which is doubtless why it has remained such a powerful metaphor, whether in terms of economics (from Marx to Madoff), racial chauvinism, politics, science or domestic relationships.
“Time is on my side”, boasted Dracula, and in many ways he was right. To this day, there are vampires all around us. One may even be in your home. As the narrator comments in “Aylmer Vance and the Vampire”, written in 1914 by the husband-and-wife duo Alice and Claude Askew and reproduced in Dracula’s Guest: “I suppose . . . that there is such a thing as vampirism even in these days of advanced civilisation . . . . there are certain people . . . who seem to depress one and undermine one’s energies, quite unconsciously of course, but one feels somehow that vitality has passed from oneself to them”.