Archive for Death

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Posted in Caves, Edinburgh, History, Legend, Museum, Sculpture, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

If there is one thing I love more than a spooky mystery, it is an unsolved spooky mystery. I recently discovered one such mystery on a brief visit to Edinburgh, where I wandered into the wonderful National Museum of Scotland. There I found the intriguing Arthur’s Seat coffins, a spooky mystery if ever there was one.

The Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Discovered in 1836 by some boys in a cave on the side of Arthur’s Seat, the impressive craggy hill that dominates the city, these tiny handmade coffins were arranged carefully in three tiers. Each one is intricately carved, and wears custom made clothes with little painted boots. To this day nobody knows who made them, or when, or even why, but there are a few interesting theories.

A detail of the Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

A detail of the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Some people have suggested that the coffins were used by witches to cast spells on their victims, rather like a Scottish form of voodoo. Another theory is that they were kept by sailors as good luck talismans. There is even conjecture that these strange little dollies represent the seventeen victims of notorious Edinburgh grave robbers Burke and Hare, and that local inhabitants made them in order to allow the stolen and dissected bodies a decent burial.

Interesting ideas indeed, but of course the real purpose of these rather cute (but also rather creepy) coffins will probably always remain a perplexing, but definitely very magical, mystery.


The Mummies of St Michan’s, Dublin

Posted in Crypt, Dublin, History with tags , , on January 25, 2013 by mysearchformagic
My recent trip to Dublin was brief and busy, but luckily I still had a bit of spare time to hunt out some magic. Top of my list of places to visit was St Michan’s, an unassuming church just north of the river Liffey. From the outside, and indeed from the inside, it’s a rather simple place, calm and quiet. But the real magic lies beneath, in the church’s ancient crypt.
The church of St Michan's

The church of St Michan’s

Although St Michan’s was largely rebuilt in the 17th Century, its underground vaults are possibly much older. They are entered through heavy metal doors, built to keep out graverobbers and vandals, and once inside you will see why.

The door to the crypt of St Michan's

The door to the crypt of St Michan’s

The crypts of St Michan’s are the final resting place of some of Ireland’s great and good, their coffins elaborately decorated with velvet and gilded decoration. The tunnels are lined with dark vaults, each piled high with caskets, some of them well preserved, some of them collapsing under the weight of those above.

Coffins in the vault of St Michan's

Coffins in the vault of St Michan’s

But, interesting as they are, I didn’t come here to look at coffins. The highlight of any visit to the crypts  of St Michan’s are the famous mummies. For some unknown reason, possibly to do with the constant temperature, the dry conditions or the methane which allegedly seeps from the ground below, the bodies interred here are unusually well preserved. Over the centuries a few of them have been exposed due to their crumbling coffins, and these ‘mummies’ are now displayed for the benefit of visitors who have a  taste for the macabre, like myself.

The Mummies of St Michan's

The Mummies of St Michan’s

Myths and stories have evolved around the identities of these mummified bodies. One is said to be a nun. Another, who is missing a hand, is alleged to have been a criminal, his lower arm chopped off as a punishment. The most famous corpse is known as the ‘crusader’, and legend tells that he was once a courageous knight; at around 2 metres in height, he was certainly imposing. It is said that those brave enough to rub his finger will be rewarded with good luck.

I suspect that many of these tales may be more blarney than historical fact, but then the Irish never let the facts stand in the way of a bit of magic. Quite right too, I say. So did I rub the leathery, dessicated finger of the knight? Well of course I did. And have I been showered with good luck? Well, let’s just say I will keep you posted.

A Tau tau, the Wellcome Collection

Posted in Art, History, Superstition with tags , , , on January 12, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Until last weekend, I had no idea of what a tau-tau was. Now that I have seen one, I won’t be forgetting it in a hurry.

A tau tauImage courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

A tau tau
Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

I discovered this tau tau in the current exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, which is simply and snappily titled Death. The exhibition features the private collection of Richard Harris, which includes a plethora of strange and magical items, all of them relating to that most taboo of subjects. Despite the fact that it is going to happen to all of us one day, death is something most of try to avoid talking or thinking about. The way that it has been viewed over the centuries and throughout the world has varied immensely, hence the array of amazing objects included in Death.

Tau taus are unique to the Toraja people of Indonesia. They were created to sit outside the rock-cut tombs of the wealthier Torajans, guarding their remains and acting as symbols of their wealth and status. The arrival of Christian missionaries in the early 20th Century almost wiped out the practise, and in more recent times the remaining tau taus have been regularly plundered by grave robbers.

Tau taus in situ, an image taken near the village of Lemo in 1971

Tau taus in situ, an image taken near the village of Lemo in 1971

For any visitor to Death, it’s hard to miss the tau tau. It sits silently in the centre of one of the galleries, spotlit and staring. Its presence is unsettling, and despite its simple carving and rudimentary accessories, it has a real sense of personality. This tau tau looks like it could get up and start shuffling towards you at any second, which is a distinctly unsettling thought.

I’m not sure about the morals of display such items, which have obviously been stolen from their rightful location at some point, but the tau tau is certainly an object of wonder. Standing next to it was a rather sinister experience, one which will I suspect haunt me for a long time to come.