Elagabulus: the 14-year old transvestite who ruled Rome

elagabulus statute

He was a Syrian transvestite who enjoyed being whipped in public.  He married and divorced at least five women during a four-year period, but his most stable relationship was with a male athlete.  He positively adored his pet rock.

Sounds like just another day in W. Hollywood in the ‘70s.  Only the year was 217, and the transvestite in question happened to be the Emperor of Rome.

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Mopane worms taste just like… potato chips

mopane worm

Cruncy, salty mopane worms are a favorite snack in Zimbabwe and other parts of southern Africa.  The “worm” is actually a caterpillar of Gonimbrasia belina, commonly known as the Emperor moth.  It is called a mopane (or mopani) worm from its diet — the leaves of the mopane tree.

Ounce for ounce, mopane worms contain three times as much protein as beef.  They have a whopping 31 mg of iron per 100 grams of dry weight, and are a good source of potassium, sodium, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc, manganese, copper and B vitamins.

To harvest mopane worms, mature caterpillars are plucked by hand (or shaken from higher branches) and placed into buckets. Stubborn worms are pried loose with a stick. As they are handled, the worms excrete a brown liquid, which leaves the pickers’ hands slippery and wet. Continue reading

Salvador Dalí’s fear of castration

Salvador Dalí, The Great Masturbator (1929)

Salvador Dalí, The Great Masturbator (1929)


Salvador Dalí’s fears and obsessions inspired some of his most famous works.  Explicit sexual themes, in particular, recur with a regularity seldom seen in mainstream art.

As a schoolchild, Dalí compared his penis to those of his schoolmates and found it “small, pitiful and soft.”  For a long time, he believed himself impotent.  On reading a pornographic novel in which the protagonist said that he enjoyed “making women creak like a watermelon,” Dali worried he would never be able to do that himself.

During Dalí’s youth, his father attempted to “educate” him with a book showing explicit photos of people suffering from advanced untreated venereal diseases . These photos of grotesquely diseased genitalia fascinated and horrified Dalí.  He began to associate sex with putrefaction and decay.

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The assassination of Louis of Orléans – how John the Fearless got away with murder



John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy

John II of Burgundy – John the Fearless as he is better known today — was famous in his day as a military hero.  But he was infamous for arranging the assassination of the king’s brother, Louis of Orléans — and convincing the king it was justified.

The king was Charles VI of France, who ruled from 1380 to 1422.  Charles suffered from what was most likely schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder.  During his recurrent episodes of madness, he had severe hallucinations and delusions.  At one point, he even believed he was made out of glass.  He forbade anyone to touch him, lest he break, and had his tailors sew rods into his clothing for additional protection.

A young Charles VI of France

A young Charles VI

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Cagliostro and the Affair of the Diamond Necklace


Giuseppe Balsamo a/k/a Alessandro di Cagliostro

Alchemist, forger, quack, pimp – in the 18th century, the self-styled Count Alessandro di Cagliostro was all of these and more.  He might have been forgotten were it not for his alleged involvement in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace in 1785.  The event – involving the theft of an expensive diamond necklace by means of Marie Antoinette’s forged signature —  cast suspicion on the unpopular queen and may have contributed to the French Revolution.  Although Cagliostro was found innocent of any involvement in the crime, he nevertheless was held in the Bastille for nine months and eventually asked to leave France.

Cagliostro was most likely born Giuseppe Balsamo in Palermo, Sicily.  Although his family was poor, Balsamo had a tutor and eventually became a novice in the Catholic Order of St. John of God.  Before he was expelled, he learned chemistry as well as religious rites.

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Ergot poisoning: the original Purple Haze

Detail of The Temptations of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-15

Detail from The Temptations of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-15

“[A] Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.”  From the Annales Xantenses (857 AD).


It has been blamed for the Salem witch trials and the “Great Fear” of 1789,  which contributed to the French Revolution.  Its reemergence in the 20th century led to a treatment for migraine headaches and to the invention of LSD.

But in the Middle Ages, what we now call ergot poisoning, or ergotism, was a terrifying mystery known as “Holy Fire” (ignis sacer) because of the terrible burning pain it caused. Ergot — the common name for Claviceps purpurea – is a fungus that affects rye and other grains.  It contains ergotamine which, in moderate doses, causes the contraction of smooth muscle fibers, such as those in the small arteries.

I Continue reading

The delicious, nutritious dandelion is anything but a common weed


Many people think of the dandelion as little more than an alternative to a daisy for playing “he loves me, he loves me not.”  Indeed, it’s said that if you can blow all of a dandelion’s seeds off with one try, then you are passionately loved. If some seeds remain, your lover has reservations about your relationship.  And if a lot of seeds stay stuck to the globe, you are supposedly loved very little or not at all.

But taraxacum officinale, as dandelion is botanically known, is good for much more than mere child’s play.  Full of Vitamins A, B, C, D and K, as well as iron, potassium and zinc, young dandelion greens make a tasty and nutritious addition to any meal.  In many parts of the world, dandelion is also consumed as a medicine, though claims about it have not been clinically tested in humans.  It has been used for centuries, however, to treat dyspepsia (indigestion/upset stomach), dropsy and liver disorders, and as a mild laxative for chronic constipation.  It is also said to improve the appetite and promote digestion.

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Dragons, Death, Destruction — it’s The Apocalypse Tapestry at the Chateau d’Angers


Earthquakes… floods…. a seven-headed beast from the bottomless pit.  No, it’s not the latest Hollywood blockbuster, it’s the Bible, specifically, the Apocalypse of Saint John the Apostle from the Book of Revelation.  And you can see it depicted in all its gory details in the 14th century Apocalypse Tapestry, housed in the remains of the magnificent Chateau d’Angers in France’s Loire Valley.

The silk and wool Apocalpyse Tapestry is the oldest surviving French medieval tapestry.  Commissioned by Louis I of Anjou (brother of King Charles V of France) and produced between 1377 and 1382, it originally consisted of 105 individual panels with alternating backgrounds of blue and red.  Its overall length was 551 feet (by 19 feet high), and would have taken between 50 and 84 years of man-labor to weave. By way of comparison, the Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Conquest of England, is just 230 feet long (not to mention that it isn’t actually a tapestry — it’s embroidery.)

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, Normandy, France

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, Normandy, France

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A short history of condoms

condom testingCondom use dates back centuries, if not millennia.

The earliest undisputed evidence of condom use in Europe is from the 16th century.  In 1564, the Italian physician Gabriele Falloppio (for whom the Fallopian tubes are named), wrote a tract on the “French Disease” (syphilis).  He recommended that to avoid contracting the disease, men should use a small linen sheath on the glans (head) of the penis.  The cloth had to be sewn to fit the glans precisely so that it wouldn’t fall off.  A ribbon tied to the shaft of the penis also helped keep the cloth in place.  Falloppio suggested that it be pink, to please the ladies.  Before intercourse, the man was to moisten the sheath with a little saliva or lotion.

The oldest condoms ever excavated date from nearly a century later (approximately 1642).  They were found in a cesspit on the grounds of Dudley Castle and were made from animal membranes.

condom dudley

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The mysterious origins of curling

The Norwegian curling team takes the ice at the 2014 Sochi Olympics

The Norwegian curling team takes the ice at the 2014 Sochi Olympics

There’s a reason curling is known as “chess on ice.”

On its surface, the game is simple.  Two teams of four players each take turns sliding eight 44-pound granite stones (“rocks”) across the “sheet” toward the “house”, the circular target at the far end of the ice.  At the conclusion of a round – called an “end” – points are awarded to whichever team has a rock closest to the “button” (the center of the target).  That team gets one point for each rock closer to the button than the competitors’ nearest rock.  Whoever has the most points at the conclusion of 10 ends wins.

However, curling takes not just fitness and teamwork, but a great deal of smarts — hence the “chess on ice” moniker.  Yet while curlers may be the brainiacs of the Olympic world, ask any curler the origins of the game and you might not get an answer.  The origins of the magnificence that is modern curling are sadly obscure.

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