Myth Monday: Asclepius, God of Medicine (Greek Mythology)

Myth Monday: Asclepius, God of Medicine (Greek Mythology)

By Kara Newcastle

Äskulap_bzw._Asklepios_-_Neues_Palais_Sanssouci_Steffen_Heilfort wikimeida commons

Maybe you’re aware of it already, but if not, you should know that we are in the middle of a pandemic, caused by the coronavirus, or Covid-19. While we’re INCREDIBLY lucky that this has not hit tuberculosis, Spanish flu, or Bubonic Plague-type proportions yet, millions of people have been stricken and, sadly, many have died from it. Fortunately, we have these amazing people called nurses and doctors who are highly trained in medicine and healthcare, working around the clock nonstop to keep us healthy and safe. So, in their honor, I’d like to present the god that helped to create the world of medicine as we know it now: Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.

According to myth, Asclepius was the son of the Thessalian princess Coronis (or Arsinoe) and Apollo, the god of light, prophecy, music, and medicine. The circumstances around Asclepius’s birth vary; some versions say that Coronis secretly gave birth to him and left him to die of exposure on a mountainside, where he was rescued by a shepherd. The more widespread version tells that, while pregnant with Asclepius, Coronis fell in love with a mortal man named Iskhys, choosing him over the divine Apollo. Apollo discovered the affair when a white-feathered crow (or raven) told him about it. In jealous rage, Apollo threw a fireball at the crow, and while the bird managed to dodge the worst of it, its feathers were singed, which is why crows are always black.

Hellbent on avenging himself, Apollo either killed Coronis himself with an arrow or sent his twin sister Artemis, the goddess of the moon and the hunt, to do it for him. Coronis died admitting that she had been wrong to love Iskhys but grieved that her unborn child would die with her. Realizing what he had done, Apollo tried to save Coronis’s life, but could not. Not wanting their son to die as well, Apollo performed a caesarean section on the dead princess as she laid on her funeral pyre and rescued the infant. This is where Asclepius earned his name: “to cut open.”


Naming the baby Asclepius, Apollo cared for the child for a time, teaching him about medicinal herbs. When Asclepius was a boy, Apollo entrusted him into the care of Cheiron, the wise, civilized centaur who tutored many heroes. Seeing Asclepius’s interest in medicine, Cheiron encouraged the boy, teaching him medicine, how to diagnose diseases, set bones, and perform surgery. Asclepius also used divination (fortunetelling) to contact his father Apollo for further instruction.

As a young man, Asclepius returned to the city and began his work as a physician, curing among many others King Ascles of his blindness and serving as one of the Argonauts. Asclepius married Epione, a soother of pain, and together they had seven children, all renowned healers. Their two sons were Podaleirios and Makhaon, who served as warriors and doctors during the Trojan War. Their five daughters were Hygeia, whose skill was in hygiene; Panacea, who created medicines; Iaso, a healer; Akeso, who specialized in curatives; and Aegle, who was blessed with radiant good health. The five daughters were called the Asclepiades and were their father’s retinue.

414px-Sculpture_of_Aesculapius_and_Hygeia by О. В. Любимова wikimedia commons

Asclepius was so successful that his fame spread all the way to Crete, where King Minos’s son Androgeon (other versions say it was Glaucus, still others say it was Hippolytus, son of Theseus) had died from an unknown illness. Minos summoned Asclepius to Crete and had him locked in the dungeon with the prince’s body, saying that the physician would not be allowed to leave until he had brought Androgeon back to life. At a loss, Asclepius sat there beside the body, wracking his brain for ideas. As he sat there, Asclepius glanced down and noticed a snake slithering into the cell through a hole in the wall. Grabbing up his staff, Asclepius struck the snake dead.

Not long after the snake had stopped its death throes, a second snake eased into the cell. Asclepius was ready to kill this one as well, but then he noticed that the second snake had a leaf in its mouth. It crept over to its fallen brother and laid the leaf on its head. To Asclepius’s disbelief, the dead snake took a breath, rolled over, and followed the second snake back outside. Realizing that the leaf had brought the snake back to life, Asclepius took the leaf and applied it to the dead Androgeon. In moments, the corpse began to breathe, and then it opened its eyes. Blinking in confusion, Androgeon sat up—he was alive! (Another version says that Asclepius’s aunt Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was so impressed by Asclepius’s passion for medicine that she gifted him vials of blood taken from the monster Medusa, and told him that the bottles containing blood from the right side of Medusa would restore life, while the vials containing blood taken from the left side would kill all. Asclepius used the right vials to save Androgeon, or whoever the story says it was. And yet another version says that while Asclepius grew up with Cheiron, he was kind to the snakes that lived nearby. One night while he was asleep, a snake licked his ears and whispered the secrets of resurrection to him.)

192px-Star_of_life2.svg wikimedia commons
Star of Life, symbol of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS)

Overjoyed to have his son back, Minos released Asclepius who returned home, with his staff now bearing a snake wrapped around it (called the asclepian, still used by many healthcare organizations today.) Once home, Asclepius began raising many more people from the dead. Unfortunately, this upset Hades, the god of the dead, and for good reason; the universe followed a strict set of rules in order to stave off chaos. One of those rules was that people were born, people lived, people died—now that Asclepius was resurrecting the dead, the planet was being overpopulated, and he was throwing the order of the universe out of balance.

Symbol of the World Health Organization (WHO)

Hades brought his case to Zeus, the king of the gods. Zeus agreed that the very fabric of reality was in danger of being unraveled by Asclepius’s good intentions, and so struck his grandson dead with a thunderbolt. Asclepius’s father Apollo was outraged by the murder and, because he couldn’t avenge his son directly, he instead slew the Cyclops that had forged Zeus’s thunderbolts. Zeus was so shocked and angry at Apollo’s behavior that he considered locking the sun god away in Tartarus, the infernal prison, but relented when Apollo and Artemis’s mother Leto pleaded on his behalf. Instead, Zeus sentenced Apollo to be the slave of King Admetus for one year. (It wasn’t all that bad; they wound up falling in love.)

After Asclepius died, Zeus placed him in the sky as the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Holder, but it’s said that Apollo begged Zeus to let Asclepius come back and live as a god. Zeus agreed, resurrected Asclepius, and turned him, his wife Epione, and their daughters into gods of health and medicine. (Some versions say that when Hercules descended into the Underworld as one of his Labors, he rescued Asclepius’s spirit and brought it back to the surface.)

In Ancient Greece, temples to Asclepius were known as asclepieions, and also served as hospitals. The ailing would sleep inside the temple and received dreams from Asclepius. The patients would report the dreams to the priests, also called Asclepiades (or Therapeutae in Latin), who would then divine the meaning and proceed with the appropriate treatment. If a patient was sick enough to visit an asclepieion, they’d better be brave; the floors of the sick rooms were always crawling with the non-venomous Aesculapian snakes (and those suckers were big—at least six feet long!) Sacred dogs were also kept in the temples and were brought out to (skip this if you’re squeamish) lick the wounds of the injured. Every temple contained purifying baths of fresh water, and the doctors regularly prescribed diet and exercise to keep their patients healthy.

The_Temple_of_Asclepius_(Acropolis_of_Athens)_on_March_5,_2020 b George E. Koronaios wikimedia commons

The most famous of Asclepius’s followers was Hippocrates, “the Father of Medicine.” Born in the 5th century, Hippocrates studied at the asclepieion at Kos (one of 200 shrines to Asclepius) and was one of the first physicians that believed illnesses were caused by disease, not by evil spirits (he also claimed to be a descendent of Asclepius’s son Podaleirios.) He is credited with creating the code of ethics, known as the Hippocratic Oath, that all doctors must swear by before they practice medicine. Originally, the Hippocratic Oath began with, “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture,” and included many of the tenements of treatment and responsibility that is in the modern oath today.

Asclepius became a very popular god, with several events and important figures linked to him. During a battle against the Malli, Alexander the Great was badly wounded, but saved by an Asclepian doctor. In 430 BC, plague struck Athens, and the philosopher Sophocles pressured the leaders of the city-state to build a temple to Asclepius to counter it. According to the philosopher Plato, after Socrates had drunk the fatal hemlock poison, his final words were, “Make a sacrifice to Asclepius.” Aristotle claimed to be a descendent, and the great Roman physician Galen was also an Asclepiad.

Worship of Asclepius and his daughter Hygeia continued well into the 3rd century A.D. after the worship of all other Greco-Roman gods had ended. He had over 500 temples scattered across Europe and the Middle East, many of which were turned into churches once Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion. Even so, Asclepius continued to be identified with medicine, and his name has been used in a variety of medicinal plants and treatments. Milkweed’s botanical genus is known as Asclepias, and the variant A. tuberosa, also known as butterfly weed or pleurisy root, is used to treat pleurisy (inflammation of the lungs.) The roots contain asclepiadin, which is used as an expectorant and anti-inflammatory.

800px-Common_Milkweed_with_Seed_Pods by Dwight Burdette wikimedia commons

Now, I’ve already gone long on this, but I just want to add a note: early I mentioned Asclepius’s staff, a rod entwined with a single snake. I’m sure that you’ve seen a similar symbol, that of a winged staff with two snakes coiled around it, facing each other. This is a caduceus and was used by the messenger gods Hermes and Iris. Neither one of these gods had anything to do with medicine, so why would you see the caduceus in hospitals and on ambulances? Well, not only was the caduceus a symbol of a messenger, but it was also a symbol of peace in ancient times; if in the middle of a battle a guy started waving a caduceus in the air, it was sort of like waving a white flag for surrender or truce, and he would be permitted to enter the enemy camp with his message without worrying he’d get his head chopped off. In the American Civil War, stretcher-bearers on the battlefield would wear the symbol and be identified as noncombatants. This is the theory as to why in 1902 the United States surgeon general chose the caduceus as the symbol of the Army Medical Corps.


Just thought I’d clear that up a bit.

Now, once you’ve finished reading this, please take a moment and either send a note of thanks or a donation to our nurses, doctors, first responders, and specialists who are out there slaying the monster that is Covid-19. Today, they’re heroes, but in the future, we may think of them as gods.

Keeping Away Death by Julian Hoke Harris
Keeping Away Death by Julian Hoke Harris, Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness, Atlanta, Georgia. (no copyright infringement intended.)

Writing Wednesday: No Such Thing as “Master”

Writing Wednesday: No Such Thing as “Master”

By Kara Newcastle



We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

—Ernest Hemingway

What makes somebody a “master” of writing?

If you’re new to the whole writing game, you might say that a master of writing is someone who maybe has a complete understanding of the written language. Or that they have a firm grasp on the construction of a compelling and enthralling story, so much so that every single book they put out is a best seller. Or perhaps it’s someone who has gotten to the point that they never struggle with writing at all.

Do yourself two favors: 1) Stop thinking like that and 2) and don’t say those things to people who have been writing for a long time. They’ll probably look at you in disbelief, then scowl and shake their heads as they hunch over their manuscript again.

That’s because longtime writers know that there is no such thing as a master of writing.

Yes, I know that colleges and universities often have a “Master’s degree” in writing (usually called a Master’s of the Arts, or of Fine Arts), but that’s not what I mean here. No, I’m talking about that misguided notion that there’s like a Yoda-esque master of writing out there and that everyone should strive to be at that level.

Newsflash: they don’t exist! Even the ones that many of us would refer to as masters of writing don’t consider themselves masters of writing. Those authors know better; they know that writing is an art that is constantly changing and evolving. They know that they can always improve on what they’ve written, and they know that it’s virtually impossible to get everything right on the first try. They’re still learning how to write.

Furthermore, no one can be a writing master because it’s impossible. Everyone has their own unique style of storytelling—there’s no single standard to hold up to because no one writes the same way.

I don’t know exactly where the concept of master writer came from, but I know it’s been around for a while and it has caused a lot of damage to new writers (yes, myself included.) New writers want so badly to be as good as the authors they adore, and when they can’t achieve what they see as that same quality of writing, they start thinking that they’ll never be good enough, or that they don’t have the talent for writing at all. Pshaw and hogwash, I say. Once you realize that there are no “masters” or “experts” or whatever you want to call them, you’re going to feel a huge weight come off of you, and writing is going to become easier now that you don’t feel the pressure to be great.

No sense in trying to live up to something that doesn’t exist.

So, if you feel like you’ll never be a “master” of writing, stop thinking that way; those kinds of people just don’t exist. Don’t worry about being the best. Just go write.

Myth Monday: Keeping Warmth in a Bag (Dene Myth)

Myth Monday: Keeping Warmth in a Bag (Dene Myth)

By Kara Newcastle


(This is another Native American myth that doesn’t cast bears in a favorable light, but don’t worry, they’re not all like that!)

According to the Dene people of Alberta, Canada, in the beginning, the world was very different. The land and the sky touched, and there were no humans. Animals populated the planet, living and working together. Their collectiveness helped to save them when the warmth disappeared.

You see, the sun lived in the sky, but gradually its heat grew weaker, until the earth became cold. It became so frigid and dark that it started to snow, and it didn’t stop. Winter stretched on for three long years, and the animals began to suffer from starvation and cold. At last, it was decided that there would be a council, and all the animals would contribute their ideas for survival.

Red_fox_image by normalityrelief wikimedia commons

On the day the animals gathered, they took turns announcing themselves, and to everyone’s surprise, the Bears were not present. In fact, no one had seen the Bears since the long winter began. The animals discussed this amongst themselves, and soon they began to suspect that the Bears had something to do with all the warmth disappearing from the world. It was decided then that a group would travel to the Bears’ home in the sky and investigate the matter. The animals that volunteered to go were the Wolf, the Fox, the Wolverine, the Bobcat, the Mouse, the Pike and the Dogfish.

The seven animals set out immediately—the Wolf, Bobcat and Fox trotting, the Wolverine ambling, the Dogfish and Pike flopping and wriggling, the Mouse hitching a ride on someone’s back—and they all made their way up into the hole in the sky that lead into the Upper World, where the Bears lived. The Fox and Wolf sniffed out a trail, and eventually the party found themselves at the edge of a lake. On the other side they could see a canoe set on the beach, and beyond that, a hut, with a fire burning in front of it. Sitting just inside the door of the hut were two little bear cubs.

Baby_bears_playing_in_the_sun_(14717487854) by Magnus Johansson wikimedia commons

“There they are!” the Wolverine snarled, and all the animals hurried around the big lake, rushing up to the hut. The two bear cubs gaped at the crowd of strangers, flinching back as Wolverine bellowed, “Where’s your mother?!”

“Wolverine, stop!” the Fox hissed, “They’re just babies.”

The Wolverine snarled but relented, sidling away a pace as the Wolf stepped up to the cubs. “I’m sorry about that, children,” he said kindly. “But we came to visit your mother. Where is she?”

“Out hunting,” said one cub.

As the Wolf questioned the baby bears, the other animals wandered around the hut, studying everything inside. They were quick to notice all the leather bags hanging from the rafters. Strange smells came from within each one. One trembled. Another was damp.

The Bobcat sniffed at the bottom of the wet bag. “What’s in here?” she asked.

“Out mother keeps rain in that bag,” answered one of the bear cubs.

The Mouse pointed to the bag that trembled. “What about this one?” she squeaked.

“That has wind in it,” said the other cub.

Snuffling, the Wolverine raised his nose to a third bag. “What’s in this one?” he demanded, prodding it with a claw.

The little bears’ eyes widened. “Oh, we can’t tell you that,” they gasped. “It’s a secret. Mother would beat us if we told it!”

Arching an eyebrow, the Wolf lolled out his tongue and wagged his tail. “But we’re friends with your mother. You can tell friends, just not strangers.”

800px-Arctic_wolf_2_(J) by ParspnsPhotographyNL wikimedia commons

Seeing the cubs’ hesitation, the Bobcat purred and rubbed her furry cheek against theirs. “We promise not to tell anybody else. Your mother will never find out.”

The little cubs turned their big eyes up to the animals crowded around them. “You promise?”

Irritated with the delay, the Wolverine opened his mouth to yell at the little ones. The Pike, seeing what was about to happen, flipped his fishy body up and over into the air and landed with a hard flop over Wolverine’s head, stunning him into silence with the impact.

Too young to know better and seeing the friendly faces of all the animals around them (save for the cranky Wolverine,) the bear cubs looked at each and smiled shyly. They beckoned the animals to lean in closer.

“Mother keeps the heat in that bag,” one cub whispered.

The Fox blinked her golden eyes. “The heat?”

The other cub nodded. “Yeah! All the heat from the sun. It’s in there.”

Amazed, the search party all glanced at each other, knowing what this meant; the greedy Bear had stolen all of the sun’s heat and trapped it in that bag!

Her whiskers trembling with fury, the Mouse kept her composure and managed to smile at the bear cubs. “Thank you,” she squeaked. “That’s all we needed to know.”

Realizing that Mother Bear would be home at any moment, the animals said goodbye to the cubs and raced out of the hut, hiding in the nearby woodland. They huddled together and whispered.

“Stupid Bear!” the Wolverine snarled. “She stole all the heat and left us all to freeze to death!”

“We have to get that bag out of there,” Fox said.

“It won’t be easy,” Dogfish said. “It’s up high and tied tight to the rafter.”

“We’ll have to stand on each other to get it down,” suggested the Mouse.

“It’s big, too,” the Pike said worriedly. “It’ll take time to carry it away.”

The Bobcat nodded. “We’ll need to distract Mother Bear in the meantime.”

“I agree,” said the Wolf. “I think I have a plan. Bobcat, can you lure the Bears away from the hut?”

The Bobcat huffed. “Those greedy things? Easy.”

“Good. Wolverine, Fox and I will go inside and get the bag down. Pike and Dogfish, you’ll help Bobcat get away from the Bears after we get the bag out.”

The Mouse raised her tiny paw. “What about me, Wolf? How can I help?”

The Wolf smiled at her. “I want you to chew up the oar in the canoe. Mother Bear will try to cut across the lake to catch up with us, and that’ll slow her down.”

“Consider it done!”


With their plan in place, the animals waited in the forest until they saw the big, shaggy form of Mother Bear plodding her way back to her hut. Knowing how hungry bears could be, Bobcat transformed her shape into that of a chubby caribou calf and darted out of the wood line. She pranced a safe distance away from Mother Bear, and when the old bear glanced up, Bobcat raced into the trees, far on the other side of the Bears’ hut.

“Children!” Mother Bear roared. “Quick! Get out here and help me catch this calf!”

The two little bears cubs instantly galloped out of the hut, and, with their mother leading the way, they ran after Bobcat, disappearing into the forest.

The second the Bears vanished, the other animals sprang from their hiding places. Pike and Dogfish jumped in the lake while Mouse leapt into the canoe and started gnawing on the oar. Wolf, Wolverine and Fox darted into the hut, stood on each other’s shoulders, and pulled down the bag of heat from the rafters. The bag secured, they tore out of the hut, gathered up the Mouse, and began running for the far end of the lake.

Meanwhile, the disguised Bobcat heard the Bears gaining on her, so she took a hard turn back towards the lake and leapt in. Dogfish and Pike quickly towed Bobcat away from the shore as the Mother Bear pushed her canoe out into the water and began furiously paddling after what she thought was a caribou calf. Halfway across the lake, the oar snapped in her paws.

“What is this?!” Mother Bear howled. In a rage, she flung the broken pieces of the oar out into the water, but overreached and wound up flipping the canoe over, flinging her into the water.

As the Mother Bear spluttered to the surface, Bobcat, Pike and Dogfish reached the opposite shore, where the other animals were waiting. Panting, the Bobcat changed back into her true form and said, “We have to go—Mother Bear’s not far behind!”

800px-Florida_bobcat_going_(16104332097) by Russ wikimedia commons

As Bobcat said this, Mother Bear broke the surface of the water, and instantly saw the seven animals gathered there with the bag of heat. Realizing she had been tricked and robbed, Mother Bear roared in rage and began thrashing her way towards them. Horrified, the animals turned and fled.

The animals headed straight back to the hole that would lead them from the Upper World in the Sky to the Lower World on Earth, but the hole was far away, and the bag was heavy. Wolf carried the bag as far as he could, and when he became too tired, he flung the bag to Wolverine. “Catch!”

“Got it!” Jamming the bag in his teeth, Wolverine ran as far as he could, but he began to tire as well. Realizing he was starting to lag, he threw the bag to Fox. “Fox, get it!”

Bouncing up into the air, Fox caught the bag of heat and put on the speed, racing as fast as she could, but she felt herself losing strength. Gasping for air, she whipped the bag towards Bobcat. “Bobcat, head’s up!”

Already exhausted from evading the Bears, Bobcat snatched the bag out of the air, but the heavy weight of the bag slowed her down. As she struggled to carry the bag, all the animals heard the thunderous pounding of Mother Bear’s feet behind them, catching up.

“GIVE ME THAT BAG!” Mother Bear shrieked.

“Look!” Mouse cried, pointing ahead of them. “There’s the hole—we’re almost there!”

“I can’t carry this thing anymore!” Bobcat wheezed.

Panicked, Pike and Dogfish flopped up alongside her. “Give it to us!” they shouted.

With a burst of effort, Bobcat tossed the bag to Pike and Dogfish. Together, the two fish snagged the bag in their teeth just as they came up to the edge of the hole—and just as Mother Bear caught up to them!

“That’s mine!” Mother Bear roared.

“Jump!” Wolf yelled.

All the animals yowled in terror as they flung themselves and the bag of heat through the hole, yelping as Mother Bear’s fearsome teeth snapped closed behind them. The animals tumbled down to the cold, snowy Lower World, and the second they came to a stop, they clustered around the bag. Each animal took a part of the bag in their teeth and claws and yanked in all directions. Instantly, the bag tore open and the heat burst out. The heat spread far and wide, rapidly warming the world again.

The snow and ice melted with great speed, so great that now the world was threatened to be drowned by a massive flood. Terrified, all the animals ran for the safety of the Great Tree, a tree so tall it reached into the sky, almost into the Upper World. As the poor creatures huddled in the branches, fearing that the end had come, a massive fish no one had ever seen before rose out of the depths. It opened its huge mouth to its fullest extent and gulped up all the extra water. He drank so much water, in fact, that he grew to immense size and, too big to return to the ocean, he was turned into a mountain instead.

At long last, the earth was returned to normal. The sun and heat dried the earth, the flowers burst forth, and the animals were happy because summer had returned!

Writing Wednesday: AREN’T YOU FINISHED YET?

Writing Wednesday: AREN’T YOU FINISHED YET?

By Kara Newcastle


438px-Gerard_ter_Borch_-_Die_Briefschreiberin_(Schwester_Gesine) woman writing a letter 1655 wikimedia


One of these days I’m going to put together a list called “Things Writers Absolutely F***ing Hate to Hear from Other People,” and this particular question is going to rank pretty high on it, if not #1: “Aren’t you finished yet?”

Show of hands: how many of you have heard this or some variation of it? Yeah, I don’t need to see you to know that about 99.9% of you have your hands up. And you’ve likely heard it every time you start a new book or story that takes a bit of time to complete. And it is so IRRITATING.

You usually get this question from a relative or friend who is not a writer by any stretch of the imagination. They know you’ve been writing for a long time (or maybe not, maybe it feels like that to them) and it boggles their mind that you haven’t completed your work yet. The problem is that most non-writers don’t understand the effort and process that goes into writing. All they see is the finished product, not the blood, sweat and tears that go into the creation of it. They think all you do is sit down and write your entire project in one go.

But we writers know better. We know that there is plotting to be done, research, rough drafts, rewrites, edits, struggling to find that right word, stressing out over phrasing, suffocating writer’s block, procrastination from crippling self-doubt and, oh yeah, REAL LIFE INTERRUPTING EVERYTHING.

If you ever mention your book to someone and they respond with, “Aren’t you done yet?”, don’t feel guilty about it. You know what the process is like (and be honest with yourself if you know you’ve been avoiding it.) Like any other project, writing can’t be rushed or you’ll end up with crap. And if you end up with crap, you’ll just get frustrated with yourself, and it’ll just hurt you in the long run.

How should you respond when somebody asks you why you aren’t done yet? It’s up to you; you could go into a long discussion about the process, or you could shrug and say, “It takes time,” and leave it at that. You could go the snob route, sighing dramatically, “You’re not a writer … you just wouldn’t understand.” You could lean in and whisper frantically, “I don’t know what’s going on! I keep sacrificing the animals, but the shadow that lives in my closet won’t give me any more ideas!” Or, you can use my go-to response: “I’m not done with my book yet BECAUSE PEOPLE KEEP INTERRUPTING MY WRITING TIME!!!”

Really, in the end, don’t let anybody harangue you about how long it’s taking you to get your story done. You don’t owe anybody an explanation … unless it’s your editor or boss, then that’s different.

Myth Monday: The Shroud of Turin (Christian Legend)

Myth Monday: The Shroud of Turin (Christian Legend)

By Kara Newcastle


Here’s a riddle for you: what’s near a thousand years old, made of cloth, has the image of a bloodied man printed on it, and has been driving everybody who’s ever tried to verify it pretty much insane?

That would be the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.

The Shroud of Turin is one of a number of acheiropoieta (icons created through divine power, not by human hands) that are revered in the Catholic community. Many acheiropoieta feature images of Jesus, but the Shroud of Turin stands out above them all because it shows the haunting image of a dead, tortured man silhouetted in blood … said to be the image of Jesus Christ created the moment he returned to life.

But is it real? Well, that’s a question that has been plaguing the devout, religious authorities and scientists for nearly five hundred years (give or take a few centuries—you’ll see why), and it doesn’t seem like we’ll ever have an answer.

Let’s take a look at this holy conundrum, shall we? Brace yourselves for an abrupt introduction to Sindology—the study of the Shroud of Turin.

First Off, What IS the Shroud of Turin?

Replica_Sábana_Santa by koppchen wikimedia

The Shroud of Turin is a single 14 ½ foot long, 3 ½ foot wide white linen cloth, made of flax fibers in a herringbone pattern, bearing the image (reversed, like a photo negative) of a naked, bloody, bearded man who appears to have been beaten, whipped, stabbed in the left side, and crucified. The cloth (when folded in half) displays the front of the man’s body on top and the back on his body on the bottom. The faithful believe that this is the sheet (along with a second cloth, the Sudarium of Oviedo, that was wrapped around his face and head) that was used to bind the body of Jesus Christ after he had been crucified by the Romans. Skeptics believe that the sheet is nothing more than a painted image created by a medieval con man looking to make a buck.

What the Bible Says

Burial of Christ by Carl Bloch wikimedia

After Jesus Christ had died on the cross, his body was taken down by his followers, wrapped in a linen shroud, and placed in a tomb owned by his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. The tomb was sealed, but two days later, a group of women returned to the tomb with oils and spices to clean and anoint the body, as per Judaic ordinance. Upon arriving at the tomb, they were shocked to find that Jesus’s body was gone. They rushed to tell the apostles what had happened, and when Peter went to the tomb to confirm it for himself, he saw that the body was indeed gone, and that the linens that had wrapped Jesus’s head and body had been rolled up and set aside.

What Happened to the Shroud after the Resurrection?

That’s what we know of the shroud from the Bible. What we don’t know is what happened to it immediately afterward. We don’t know who first noticed the image, who took it, or where it went for hundreds of years afterward. Prior to 1390 A.D., there were some murky accounts of a death shroud with the image of Jesus Christ upon it, but no clear description. A burial cloth with the image of a dead man, called the Image of Edessa, was rumored to be in the possession of the Byzantine emperors, but in April 1204 it vanished during the Sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade (yeah, yeah, Templars, I know.)

Where Did the Shroud Go?

descent from the cross with the shroud of turin by giulio clovio wikimedia

For nearly 150 years, there is no mention of the burial shroud until possibly the 1350s, when a story emerged from Lirey, France, that the knight Geoffroi de Charny had owned the cloth prior to his death. A record of it was definitely made in 1390 when Bishop Pierre d’Arcis wrote to Pope Clement VII that the shroud in Lirey was a fake, and that the forger had confessed.

However, in 1453 Margaret de Charny gave the shroud to the House of Savoy (Italy). It was housed in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud in Chambery (capital of the Savoy region). In 1578, the Duke of Savoy, Emmanuel Philibert, ordered that the shroud be moved to the city of Turin, where it has been on display in the chapel since the 17th century. Prior to 1997, the Shroud had been removed only once, during World War 2 to protect it from bombing attacks.

The House of Savoy retained ownership of the Shroud until 1983, when they gifted it to the pope.

An Ancient Cloth Can Hold Up for Only So Long

The Shroud was old before it ever reached its current location in Turin, and over many years it had to be patched and repaired as it wore out. In 1532, the Shroud of Turin was damaged when the Chapel of the Shroud caught fire. The Poor Clare Nuns patched a mark that was made in the shroud when a drop of molten silver from its reliquary burned through it.

In 1694, the sheet began to deteriorate further, and Father Sebastian Valfre made more repairs. The cloth was again patched in 1868 by Princess Marie Clotilde of Savoy.

The Negative Image

In 1898, the city of Turin was about to celebrate the 400th anniversary of their cathedral, and, as part of the celebration, it was planned that works of religious art would be displayed, including the Shroud. Baron Manno, head of the Shroud Commission, petitioned King Umberto I for permission to have the Shroud photographed for the first time during the event. The king agreed and Secondo Pia, attorney and popular photographer, was chosen to take the pictures.

On May 25, 1898, the exhibit was closed at noon. Pia had difficulty establishing decent lighting (even with the use of the flashbulb, said to be one of the first times a photographer ever used one) so his initial photographs weren’t clear. He returned three days later in the evening, tweaked the position of his lamps and exposure time, and took more pictures. Accompanied by Father Sanno Salaro and Lieutenant Felice Fino, the head of security, Pia went into his darkroom to develop the plates. What he saw on the reverse plates startled Pia so badly he almost dropped them.

Left: The Shroud of Turin. Right: closeup of Secondo Pia’s photo.

Starting back at him was the face of a bearded man, the same image as on the Shroud … but with even greater definition that could be plainly seen on the Shroud itself.

Pia shocked; this should not have happened. The photographic plates should have shown an image as weak as what was seen on the cloth, but in fact it was so much clearer on the plate. He had no way to explain it, and word of his discovery spread like wildfire. Some people completely believed the picture was authentic, but others accused Pia of doctoring the image. Luckily, in 1931, photographer Giuseppe Enrie took new pictures of the Shroud and found that the image came through in the exact same manner. Pia, now in his seventies, was one of the first to view it as it was being developed. It’s said that he let out a big sigh of relief when he saw it; it vindicated him.

g. enrie photo may 24 1931 wikimedia
Giuseppe Enrie’s photo

But how exactly could this have happened? There are many theories, but one of the most popular has been suggested by scientists as far back as 1930; upon Jesus’s death, a massive earthquake ripped through Jerusalem and released radiation into the tomb, creating a sort of x-ray effect.

I said it was a theory, I never said it was a great one.

The Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), 1978

In 1976, American physicist John P. Jackson, thermodynamicist Eric Jumper and photographer William Mottern, conceived of an idea to use their skills in aerospace modeling to test the image on the Shroud of Turin (how they came up with the idea I haven’t found out yet.) In 1977, they invited other scientists to join in on the research, and The Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) was born. Oh, and by the way, these weren’t just scientists and researchers from a few universities … these were scientists and researchers from Los Alamos, U.S. Air Force Weapons Laboratories, IBM, and Lockheed, to name a few. Thirty-three of them in total, serious women and men with years of training, reputations, and positions in distinguished companies.

Shroud_of_Turin_3D_Statue_at_US_Air_Force_Academy_Catholic_Chapel,_photo_by_Chris_Waits wikimedia
3D Rendering of the Shroud of Turin made in 1978 by STURP researchers John German, John Jackson, Eric Jumper and Kenneth Stevenson. Currently housed in the US Air Force Academy Catholic Chapel.

Still, the team wasn’t perfect; while they did number an archeologist and a forensics researcher amongst their ranks, there weren’t any experts on textiles or medieval art with them, leaving out a crucial component for accurate testing. They were further criticized for apparent biases for the Shroud when Joe Nickell, editor for Skeptical Inquirer Magazine (I just heard the thunderous slap of several thousand paranormal-fanatics facepalming themselves after reading his name) pointed out that some of STURP’s lead investigators served on the executive council of the Holy Shroud Guild, possibly confirming a conflict of interest. He further states that at least one researcher was made to sign a secrecy agreement.

STURP was formed in 1978, the 400th anniversary year of the Shroud arriving in Turin. The Shroud had been put on display beneath bulletproof glass from August to October 1978, and when the exposition ended, the scientists had only 5 days to collect as much material as they could. They worked around the clock, under the watchful eyes of European scientists, taking samples of the sheet using sticky tape. Experiments and examinations were conducted from 1978 through the 1980s, with their final report released in 1981.

As it turned out, the scientists were completely confused by the Shroud, as every test they made either confirmed or refuted its authenticity. It was not unusual for the scientists to be sharply divided over their findings. Garman Harbottle, a chemist from Brookhaven National Laboratory and a member of STURP, acknowledged in 1985, “ … (A)nd they (the scientists) almost came to blows.”

Still, the Shroud of Turin made enough of an impression upon the researchers that in their final report, they stated, “We can conclude for now that the Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man. It is not the product of an artist. The bloodstains are composed of hemoglobin and also give a positive test for serum albumin. The image is an ongoing mystery and until further chemical studies are made, perhaps by this group of scientists, or perhaps by some scientists in the future, the problem remains unsolved.”

The 1997 Chapel Fire

In 1997, the Turin Chapel caught fire under suspicious circumstances (I remember seeing this on the news and in the paper.) Miraculously, the Shroud had been temporarily moved from its normal place in the altar while the chapel was undergoing renovations, which saved it from incineration. Firefighter Mario Trematore raced up to the case where the reliquary was sealed and began smashing the bulletproof glass apart with a sledgehammer. Other firefighters rushed in to help, breaking up the glass with their gloved hands. As the ceiling began to cave in near them, the men pulled the casket free and ran to safety.

Mario Trematore was asked how he was able to summon the strength to break the glass, and he responded, “The bulletproof glass can stop bullets, but it cannot stop the strength of values represented by the symbol inside it. With only a hammer and our hands (still bleeding), we broke the glass. This is extraordinary!”

Unfortunately, the chapel continued to burn for another four hours, and the damage was so extensive that it took 21 years and $40 million dollars to repair it. The Shroud of Turin has not yet returned to its chapel.

Why It Might Be a Fake … Why It Might Be Real

The STURP team might have been stymied, but that didn’t stop others from trying to solve the riddle of the Shroud. Scientists, forensic experts, doctors, historians, professors of art, chemistry, math—you name it, they looked at it. And, as to be expected, no one has produced any conclusive answers, and the second one person thinks they solved the mystery, somebody else promptly shoots them down. When someone finds proof that the Shroud is fake, someone else finds proof that it’s real.

Take a look at the list I made to see why unraveling (no pun intended) the mystery of the Shroud of Turin is so frustrating:

  1. Why It’s Fake: The body is extremely bloody. Hebraic law states that the corpse must be cleaned before being interred. A European scammer likely wouldn’t know that or was trying to make the picture look gorier so people would believe it.

Why It’s Real: Some scientists believe that the corpse had indeed been washed prior to burial, because if it hadn’t, the marks from the flagellum (the whip used by the Romans, short-handled with three leather thongs or ropes with pieces of metal braided into them, sometimes tipped with hooks, also called a “scourge”) would not be so clearly defined.

  1. Fake: Testing on volunteers using live and simulated blood show that the blood trails shown on the Shroud don’t seem to travel along a path that blood leaking from those kinds of wounds would, suggesting it was painted.

Real: Some scientists believe that the blood trail pattern would make sense if Jesus had been crucified on a Y-shaped cross, not a T-shaped cross. The Romans used a number of different shaped crosses for executions, so we can’t be sure which kind was used on Jesus.

711px-Evgraf_Semenovich_Sorokin_-_Crucifixion 1873 wikimedia

  1. Fake: The wounds on the image’s feet show that the nail was driven through the tops closer to the toes, as frequently depicted in crucifixion art from the Middle Ages onward. Archeological evidence has found crucifixion victims with the nail driven from the top of the foot down into the heel.

Real: The crucifixion wounds are in the wrists as opposed to the palms of the hands. It’s believed now that the Romans would nail the executed through the wrists because these areas are thicker and allow for better hold for the nails (sorry, but it’s true, and there’s some really gross research to back it up.) In medieval times, Christ was always portrayed as being nailed through the palms of the hands.

  1. Fake: In 1998, Joe Nickell stated that the herringbone pattern found in the Shroud did not exist in Jesus’s time period; in 2000 remnants of cloth with a herringbone pattern were found near Jerusalem in a tomb that dated back to the 1st century A.D., but was not similar to the Shroud.

Real: While the herringbone pattern in the Shroud does not match what was found in the tomb near Jerusalem in 2000, textile expert Mechthild Flury-Lemberg has stated that the Shroud of Turin cloth pattern is very similar to cloth found in the fortress at Masada.

  1. Fake: The Catholic Church has never claimed that the Shroud of Turin is real.

Real (kind of): The Catholic Church has never declared any of the icons such as the Shroud, the Sudarium of Oviedo, the Crown of Thorns, Veronica’s Veil etc. to be real.

Those issues aside, there are a number of other things about the Shroud that just don’t make any sense. For example, the figure has shoulder-length hair, but Jewish men of the time would have kept their hair short (but then again, Jesus was never one to follow the crowd, was he?). The figure is also nearly six feet tall, whereas the average height for a Jewish man then was about 5’5”. The stains were tested and said to be blood, specifically type AB blood from a man, but other tests showed that the stains contained red ocher and other pigments. If it is some kind of paint, there are no paintbrush strokes.

I mentioned the bloodstains just now. Isn’t that proof enough? Well, aside from the fact that we have nothing to compare it to, the Shroud of Turin has been handled and viewed by millions of people for five hundred years or more, and the accumulated skin cells, spittle and possibly even blood from these people skews all DNA testing.

What about the 3D effect in Secondo Pia’s pictures and scans of the face made in 2010, as documented in the program The Real Face of Jesus? Medieval artists were hundreds of years away from learning the technique of adding realistic depth, so it makes it essentially impossible for someone of that time to do it. Joe Nickell (yep, him again) claimed that a piece of linen laid over a stone bust and rubbed with pigment or tempera could achieve that kind of depth, and even demonstrated it.

At this point, it seems that the only way to truly authenticate the Shroud of Turin is to have it carbon dated. And you would think it would work, but of course, it didn’t. Attempts at radiocarbon dating the sheet were made in the 1980s. Small samples of cloth were removed from the Shroud and tested.

The results? The Shroud was probably made between 1272 – 1384 A.D., confirming that it was a fake.

The problem? Further testing revealed that these samples contained fabric that was not found in other parts of the Shroud, making it likely that the samples were taken from areas that had been repaired with material used during that same time period. Therefore, the previous results could not be trusted to be accurate.

Furthermore, it has been hypothesized that since the Shroud survived two major fires and had been surrounded by lit candles for centuries, the smoke it absorbed might have altered its carbon content, making carbon testing useless.

So That Means We’ll Never Know?

Probably. But in the end, does it matter? Maybe we should stop wasting our time trying to prove or disprove it and just let it remain as it many people see it: a symbol of their faith.

(Too bad I didn’t know about this last Monday … this Easter weekend the Vatican actually put the Shroud of Turin on virtual display, and I could have linked everybody to it!)

Writing Wednesday: What If They Laugh?

Writing Wednesday: What If They Laugh?

By Kara Newcastle

Junge_Dame_beim_Schreiben_eines_Briefes by anonymous 19th c source Koller Auktionen wikimedia commons


Anything that would cause people to laugh at me, or tease me in NYC, please get rid of it.

 –Pat Conroy to the editor of one of his novels




Admit it: at some point in your writing career, you were afraid to show anybody what you had created because you were sure they were going to laugh at you. Maybe not laugh; maybe you were afraid of a sneer, a raised eyebrow, smirk, an eyeroll, or—eerugh—somebody criticizing you. Either way, you were afraid of being put down in some manner.

Hey, it’s a legitimate fear, one that has affected every writer at some point since the first scratch was made in clay. Nobody likes the feeling of pouring their heart and soul into something only to have it lambasted by someone else. It could happen, it has happened, it will happen … and then you’ll learn to get over it and keep going.

And you’ll see that it probably can help you BIG TIME.

The first thing to address is why we think people will laugh at us. That’s easy; it all goes back to when you were a kid. As a young child, I’m sure you made something that you thought was absolutely amazing. Let’s say you painted a picture, and when you looked at it, you saw a Renoir, but when you showed it an adult, they laughed. You were confused; why were they laughing at your masterpiece? Odds are, they weren’t laughing because they found your attempt at painting absurd—they were delighted, but you were too young to understand the difference. That didn’t stop it from hurting.

Fast forward a few years to your tweens. Let’s say you wrote a story for the fun of it and you show it to your friends. You think your story is on par with Rushdie, but your friends are unimpressed. They laugh dismissively, then go back to talking about whether or not Ayden with the “y” likes Aiden with the “i.”

Let’s go ahead to your teens. Let’s say you wrote a poem in your English class, and that your teacher read it. You have no aspirations for it, it’s just an assignment you did. Once the poem is finished, that one kid who sits in the back and never takes his baseball cap off yells, “That was so STUPID!” (this actually happened to me.)

Is it any wonder you’d be afraid to show your work?

To top the anxiety off, you probably feel like you don’t really compare to any established author, so you’re sure you are going to sound so ridiculously amateurish that anyone with the I.Q. of slime mold is going to find it hysterical. The thought of being mocked fills you with such dread that you’d prefer to write in secret and never show it to anybody.

Let me ask you this: how are you going to benefit from hiding and avoiding? If you have any intent of making any kind of career with writing, be it writing novels, blogs, articles or essays, you need to have people read it. Maybe they’ll laugh. If they do, let them, then ask them why. Odds are good that they’re not laughing because they find you pathetic; they might laugh because you wrote something genuinely funny. Or they’re actually very impressed with what you came up with and that’s the way they express their awe. Or they might laugh because you did make a mistake and they think, “Oh jeez, I remember doing that way back when.”

In other words, most people won’t laugh to hurt you. However, I have to point out that there are people who will make fun of you because they love seeing you hurt. (Take a second to read the comments section on a Youtube video and you’ll see I’m right.) The reasons behind this mentality are multifold, but largely it comes down to two groups: the ones that are jealous, and the ones who think they are superior. The ones who are jealous are the ones who are too afraid to put in the effort, and they resent that you have the guts to do what they can’t. The ones who think they’re superior have struggled for years to become accomplished, and they resent anybody else who comes along and breaks the rules or doesn’t appear to have put in the same amount of effort that they had to.

And yet, there is a possibility that being laughed at can actually save you from embarrassment in the future. Whenever I discuss this topic with someone, I always call to mind the bonehead move that Robert Browning made when he wrote the verse drama “Pippa Passes” in 1841. The Pippa in the title is a young Italian girl who makes observations about the world around her. Pippa says at the end of the poem:

But at night, brother howlet, over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

Yeah, read that third line up from the bottom again. Uh-huh, yup, there it is, no denying it. He used THAT word. Why is this such a big deal? So glad you asked! Apparently, Browning lived such a sheltered life that he wasn’t familiar with vulgarity. He came across the word in the bawdy 1660 poem “Vanity of the Vanities” that went, “They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat/They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat,” and assumed that a “twat” was the headcloth that a nun wore. He never bothered to look up the actual meaning, used it in his own poem, and it went to print. Luckily (or unluckily) for Browning, no one had the courage to educate him on his mistake, and he continued to misuse words in his works.

179 years later, people are still laughing at his goof. If somebody had laughed when they first read it, maybe Browning’s legacy could have been spared this embarrassment. Maybe it’ll save you too … the idea of people in the year 2199 laughing at a dumb mistake I had made freaks me out more than anybody chuckling at that mistake now.



























Myth Monday: The Robin Redbreast (Christian Legend)

Myth Monday: The Robin Redbreast (Christian Legend)

By Kara Newcastle


-Robin_Redbreast_at_Greenwich_Park,_London Keven Law from Los Angeles, USA
Happy Easter!


Groundhogs, feh. You can’t trust those little bucktoothed liars. They pop out of their holes once a year, squint their eyes, then make a prediction on the arrival of spring just by looking at their shadows.

For me, I know that spring is on its way when I start seeing robins scurrying around. They’re the real indicators. They vanish during the winter, but always return when the weather begins to warm. Seeing those flame-red feathers lets me know that however crappy the weather has been—and trust me, it’s been crappy—spring will be here in time.

The robin has been a source of hope and comfort for thousands of years, particularly amongst Christian Europeans in the early days of the church. The robin redbreast was especially sacred and its “wife,” the wren, were considered to be God’s “cock and hen,” the favorite of all His birds. The robin was especially beloved by gardeners, as the bright little birds would clear the plants of pests.

Robin with fly july 23 2007 by Central2 at English Wikipedia wikimedia commons

The robin has a plethora of stories explaining where its pretty red feathers came from. Early stories recount how the sympathetic robin was singed by the flames of Hell as it carried water down to the depths either for the burning sinners to drink, or to try to put out the fires. Another variation says that it was the wren who brought water to the damned souls, but when she returned her feathers were on fire. The robin moved quickly, beating his wings to snuff out the fire, only to have his own breast scorched.

Robins are frequently associated with Christmas, not just because of the merry red feathers, but also because a story told of how on the night that Jesus was born, the stable was bitterly cold, and Mary and Joseph struggled to keep a fire lit. Seeing their plight, a then-uncolored robin flew down from the rafters and fanned the flames of their fire as the holy family slept. Mary awoke and was so grateful for the little bird’s kindness that she awarded the robin its red feathers in remembrance, though other stories say it was because the poor bird was slightly burned in its efforts. (A similar story is found in some Native American myths, where an American robin was burned red while fanning the flames of a fire to keep a sleeping man and his son alive through a freezing night.)

If there’s any holiday the robin is most associated with, it’s Easter, and not just because it’s a springtime festival. In Christian European lore, the birds of the earth were horrified as they watched Jesus being nailed to the cross on Golgotha. The robin, swallow and goldfinch lit upon the cross and nearby trees and sang their most beautiful songs, hoping to alleviate his suffering, while the dove, overcome with emotion, could only mourn, and the cruel magpie refused to raise its voice. Seeing Christ in pain tormented the birds, and they fluttered about his head, pulling out the thorns of the crown the Romans had placed upon him. As the robin and swallow pulled the thorns free and a crossbill tried to pry loose the nails, they were splattered with Jesus’s blood, staining their feathers red forever. The robin was also said to burst out in song when it saw the resurrected Christ emerge from the tomb he had been placed in.

Cross_in_sunset batticola sri lanka feb 4 2014 by AntanO wikimedia commons

Because of the robin’s compassion and its friendly nature, as well as being blessed with the blood of Christ, it was considered to be extremely bad luck to hurt or kill a robin, cage it, disturb its nest or damage its eggs. Anyone who was coldhearted enough to harm the robin would find that the hand they used against the bird would develop an uncontrollable tremor or a tumor or other disfigurement that would make it impossible to work. The Welsh believed that the offender would also suffer the same injury they caused the bird (like a broken leg for a broken leg), and in Scotland, England and German, the robin’s killer would discover that their cows would now produce nothing but bloody milk. The fiend that stole or broke the robin’s eggs may have their most treasured possession destroyed, their child will grow up with ruined pinkie fingers, the thief’s hand might fall off, or their house might be struck by lightning in retaliation. The divine protection that hovered over the robin was enough that it was said even cats wouldn’t attempt to hunt them.

Makes you think twice about shooing robins away from your car, huh?

Furthermore, it was also believed that because it witnessed Jesus’s death on the cross, the robin was linked with death. It was said that robins and wrens couldn’t stand the sight of an unburied corpse and would cover it with leaves and moss, as told in the Babes in the Woods tale. The link between the robins and death might have come from witnessing robins perched in the trees as people dug graves. The people thought the birds were attracted to death, but more likely than not the robins were more interested in the worms the diggers were tossing out of the grave by the shovelful.


Of course, people were extremely superstitious at the time and not keen on critical thinking, so a new crop of tales arose about the robin, such that if it flew into a house or into a church that was filled with parishioners, or sang close by to a person, then someone would soon die. Seeing a robin at the entrance to the mine was thought to portend doom (red has always been considered unlucky by miners, so that doesn’t help the robin any), and if a robin tapped at the bedroom window of a sick person, that person would soon die. At the same time, it was thought that if you saw a robin shortly after a loved one had passed away, that meant the spirit of that person was visiting you, leading to the proverb, “When robins appear, loved ones are near,” making the robin a benevolent messenger of the spirit world.

All the same, people were so unnerved by the robin-death connection that they wouldn’t send get-well cards with robins on them. And Etsy and Zazzle designs notwithstanding, you still don’t see robins on get-well cards today.

On the other hand, the Victorians with their incredible ability to flip ideas around and make the morbid fascinating, loved to send pictures of dead robins and wrens as—of all things—Christmas cards! Why they would do this—why the Victorians did half of all the bizarre crap they did—isn’t entirely known, but it’s either related to the thought that the delicate bird represents the frailty and fleetingness of life, or it harkens further back to ancient and medieval times when robins and wrens were sacrificed at the winter solstice and later evolved into a revived-pagan/Christian ritual celebrated on December 26th (St. Stephen’s Day) in the British Isles. On that day boys in the village (particularly in Ireland, though it was seen in England as well) would hunt down a wren, the symbol of winter, kill it, and say it was slain by the robin, a symbol of spring.

Hunt the Wren in Ramsey, Isle of Man, in 1904. Photographed by G. B. Cowen and first published in P. G. Ralfe's Birds of the Isle of Man (1905)
When looking for a wren to kill, be sure to check everywhere

There was also a belief that if you caught a rare sighting of a robin on New Year’s Day, you could make a wish and it would come true. But be quick! If it flies away before you finish your wish, you’ll have nothing but bad luck year-round. Personally, I’d rather not take the chance.

It sounds like encountering a robin may be a mixed-bag of blessings, let me just add a few more facts on the “lucky” side of things; it was said that if a girl saw a robin on Valentine’s Day, she would marry a sailor (haven’t figured out the link to that one yet,) and if a bride saw a robin on the way to the church, or if she and her husband saw one after leaving the church, they were sure to have a happy marriage. If you have a robin following you around your garden, rest assured, you’re safe from menacing fairies; fairies can shapeshift into almost anything except the robin and are petrified of it, so they’ll stay far from your home if robins are about.

Finally, robin redbreasts were also thought to be able to predict the weather. A rhyme from Sussex, England, went as thus:

If the robin sings in the bush,

Then the weather will be coarse

But if the robin sings on the barn,

Then the weather will be warm.

For a tiny bird so steeped in Christian belief, this particular one is actually derived from Viking mythology. The Vikings believed that the robin was sacred to Thor, the god of thunder, and even called it the storm-cloud bird. Robins and other birds are known to leave an area before a bad storm and can be heard singing happily at the end of a rainstorm, which is why our non-meteorologically-inclined forebearers thought that the robin had a link with Thor.

Wow … that’s a lot of folklore for one bitty bird!

Writing Wednesday: Expectation vs. Reality

Writing Wednesday: Expectation vs. Reality
By Kara Newcastle


“Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.”—from an Iris Murdoch novel

There is a myriad of different things that frustrates a writer, whether they be a bestselling author or a total newb at the whole thing. I bet you’ve experienced them—God knows I have. And there’s one thing that bugs every writer at some point, and it’s one of the big reasons people give up writing altogether: you have a great idea, you know exactly how it’s supposed to go, and the end result is utter crap.
Or so you think. Every writer has great expectations for their novel and the writing process, but once they get going, they’re hit with reality. The reality that the book isn’t turning out the way they want it to. The reality that writing is actually a shit-ton harder than they thought it would be. The reality that they’re not the great writer they thought they were (that one’s more objective, and we’ll get to it in depth another time.)

Don’t feel bad. We’re all victims of our own expectations in everything. Every single one of us—myself included—will go into writing (or anything, really) thinking that this is going to be absolutely perfect. The trouble is, what you envision perfectly in your head doesn’t and can’t always be translated perfectly onto the page. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at something I’ve written and silently screamed at myself, “WHY CAN’T I GET THIS RIGHT?! This sounds so stilted/dull/passive/immature/weak. It’s supposed to be active/engaging/exciting/illustrative/professional/powerful! Why can’t I get what I see in my head onto the page?!”
It may take a while for the concept to sink in, but in time you’ll come to learn—as I did, as every author before did—that it takes time and rewrites to get what you want. You’ll also learn that at some point you have to stop and say you’re done, you’re satisfied with your work. It’s not easy to do; E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web among many others, was infamous for being unhappy with his work. Stories abound of him finally completing a manuscript and sending it to his publisher, only to panic, race back to the post office and beg the postmaster to dig out the package and give it back, so White could change something in the story. White was so scared of what people would think of his writing, he was constantly going back and tweaking it. He was never satisfied with his own work … but, if any of you had ever read any of his stories, you know he was a true master of the written word.
For me, it was a combination of emotional exhaustion over stressing about getting everything to translate on the page as perfectly as I imagined it and getting just so fed up with working on the same thing over and over again that caused me to rethink the whole “have to get it perfect” conundrum. I realized that I was just making myself unhappy by trying to live up to my own unrealistic expectations. Okay, so I didn’t exactly get across that the monster was hideous the way I wanted to—it’s more important that the reader understands that the monster was dangerous.
I mean, just writing this particular blog took a few tries; I had the idea for what I wanted to write but had a hard time wording it. My expectation: I’ll just bang out this blog no problem. My reality: took me maybe three rewrites and four days to get it done.
So don’t get hung up on your expectations, and don’t get discouraged by the reality. Go easy on yourself. You’ll get it done.