Mything in Action – The Thylacine Files

Recent research has turned up more fascinating facts and exposed a hoary myth about the last Thylacine, or ‘Tasmanian Tiger’. What the researchers had to say about their discovery of the skin of the last of these mythic beasts and the ‘bullsh..t’ that the animal was a male named ‘Benjamin’ is related at the link below. A small case study of how misinformation and myth arises and persists.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-12-06/benjamin-thylacine-tasmanian-tiger-naming-myth-persists/101734442

FINDING KING SOLOMON’S MINES

The Way to Kukuanaland, from King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. Eça de Queiroz

A sturdy figure clothed in leather stumbles through the mostly unknown wilderness of southern Africa’s Transvaal in 1865.A revolver, compass, sextant, hunting knife and tin bowl dangle from the man’s belt. He cradles a double-barrelled rifle in his hands and a blanket slung over his shoulder – poorly equipment for his dangerous quest. 

Since boyhood, Karl Mauch had been fascinated with faraway places and lost kingdoms. He spent his youth studying and acquiring the skills needed to pursue a life of adventurous archaeology – languages, mapping, minerology, history. While still young, Mauch decided he was ready to find the lost city of Ophir.

He arrives by ship in South Africa in 1865. Supporting himself as best he can he explores and maps the Transvaal. In 1866, accompanied by the English elephant hunter ,Henry Hartley, Mauch visits and maps the region between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers. He also hears many tales from Hartley about ancient gold mines and lost cities. The following year, now travelling alone, the German explorer discovers a number of old gold smelting works and fields in Mashonaland. He also discovers rich gold deposits near the Botswana-Zimbabwe border.

In 1868, still following his dreams, Mauch is kidnapped by the Matabele and is lucky to survive.  He makes a brief trip in early 1869 and finds indications of gold along a tributary of the Zambezi. He has no further funds until 1870 when he travels in a leaky boat along the Vaal River in another epic journey of hardship and survival. Again, the following year he sets out to find an ancient city he believes lies beyond the Limpopo River. He is robbed by natives and left with nothing. Starving and on the verge of suicide he is rescued by another group of Africans and comes into contact with the enigmatic German American hunter, Adam Render(s).

After an adventurous life in the bush and as a soldier, Renders had deserted his family a few years earlier and was living with the Shona people. He takes Mauch in and guides him to some ruins he stumbled across in 1867. After examining the broken stones and talking with the local population, Mauch concludes that he has found the mysterious golden city of Ophir and so, King Solomon’s mines.

The city or region of Ophir is mentioned in the Bible and other early religious texts as a source of great wealth. According to the story, Ophir (various spellings) was the foundation of King Solomon’s riches. He was surrounded by an excess of gold and dispensed justice and wisdom to his people. Every three years Solomon received a shipment of silver, ivory, sandalwood, jewels and gold from Ophir, along with apes and peacocks. All these things were greatly prized in the ancient world and are the origins of what would become the legend of King Solomon’s mines.

Of course, no one knew where the mines were located. Until the early sixteenth century when a member of Vasco de Gama’s 1502 voyage to India, Tome Lopes, claimed to have found them. Lopes saw the astonishing ruins of Great Zimbabwe and decided that this must have been the region called Ophir. He wrote a report of his adventures and ideas that circulated widely in Portugal and elsewhere, popularising the idea that Ophir and therefore its wealthy mines must be in southern Africa rather than the middle east. 

The rush was on. Expeditions of hopeful treasure hunters flocked to the unknown continent. Maps appeared showing the alleged location of the treasure trove. The legend grew. By the time Karl Mauch was seduced by the golden mystery Ophir and King Solomon’s mines were perhaps the world’s best-known lost treasure legend. 

After his hard-won find, Mauch returned to Germany expecting, with some justification, to be hailed as a great adventurer, mapmaker and archaeologist. He was not. Without formal qualifications he was unable to gain an academic or museum post. He briefly took part in an expedition to Central America in 1874 but was only able to find work back in Germany as a foreman in a cement factory. His health failed and just before his thirty-eighth birthday he somehow managed to fall from his first-floor window while sleeping. He died a few days later.[i] The legend claimed yet another hopeful soul.[ii]

Karl Mauch had not found the fabled city of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, nor the King’s gold. But he had found a much greater treasure. The city of Great Zimbabwe was erected  during the 11th century and grew to be an important trading hub in the 13th century. By the time the Portuguese arrived 300 years later, the city had been abandoned. No one knows why. Another enduring mystery in its own right.

Solomon’s mines and Ophir remained in the mists of myth but the existence of Great Zimbabwe’s ancient architecture, together with the real riches being extracted from southern Africa, fuelled belief in the mines. The legend received its greatest boost with the publication of ‘the most amazing book ever written’ in 1885. H  Rider Haggard’s boys’ own adventure titled, of course, King Solomon’s Mines.

Haggard was an old Africa hand. He was familiar with the local traditions of lost treasures and Mauch’s quest, as well as the Biblical story of Ophir. Perhaps the greatest best seller of the nineteenth century, and still in print, Haggard’s romance and its many spinoffs in popular literature and movies have kept the notion of King Solomon’s mines in the public consciousness ever since. The fabled mines are regularly ‘found’ though the claims are just as regularly debunked.[iii]

But, of course, the quest continues. 

Mauch’s drawing of Great Zimbabwe

[i] C Plug, ‘Mauch, Mr Karl’ in S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science, http://www.s2a3.org.za/bio/Biograph_final.php?serial=1867, accessed March 2016.

[ii] ‘Karl Mauch’ in National Geographic Deutschlandhttp://www.nationalgeographic.de/reportagen/entdecker/karl-mauch, accessed March 2016; F O Bernhard (ed and trans), Karl Mauch: African Explorer, C Struik, Capetown, 1971.

[iii] James D Muhly ‘Solomon the Copper King: A Twentieth Century Myth’ in Expedition, vol 29, no 2, 1987, pp. 38-47.

ALEXANDER AT THE GATES OF PARADISE

Alexander Mosaic (detail), House of the FaunPompeii

One historical figure has left a gigantic imprint in the traditional stories of many countries and cultures. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) was a Macedonian king who conquered much of the known world, including the extensive Persian Empire, between 336 BC and his death at the age of only 33. Generally considered to be one of the finest military geniuses of all time, he appears in the folklore of many cultures, from Macedonia to India and in Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions.[i] The range and variety of stories about Alexander has led at least one authority to claim Alexander is the greatest folk hero of all.[ii] In addition to his extensive folklore, and in recognition of his historical deeds, Alexander is also revered as a Macedonian culture and national hero.[iii]

First and foremost, though, is Alexander’s towering status as a warrior. Iranian tradition, for example, often recounts his brilliant, ruthless and sometimes bloodthirsty victories and accomplishments.[iv] Medieval Christian stories have Alexander fighting female cannibals, six-headed giants and other monsters in the best traditions of the giant-slayer. In both Jewish and Christian tradition, Alexander is said to have fought his way to the gates of paradise in a story that suggests the futility of human endeavours, even those of one so great as Alexander.

Marching through a dusty desert, Alexander and his men came upon a small river. The beauty of the river tempted Alexander to forgo the world of violence greed and treachery and to live by the river in peace. But he resists this temptation and marches on. Eventually he and his army stop to rest by the banks of the river and a fish is caught for the great man’s supper. So fine did the fish taste that Alexander concluded the river must flow from a rich country. He followed the river and came to the gates of paradise. Never modest, Alexander announced himself as the great conqueror and lord of all the earth and demanded to be allowed into Paradise. 

But the gates remained locked and a voice from the other side said that this was the home of the just and the peaceful and that only those who had conquered their passions may enter. ‘Nations may have paid homage to thee, but thy soul is not worthy to be admitted within the gates of the abode of the just. Go thy ways, endeavour to cure thy soul, and learn more wisdom than thou hast done hitherto’, says an Israeli version of the tale.[v]

No matter how Alexander requests the right to enter he is refused. Eventually he asks for a gift to prove he has travelled to the gates of Paradise. The guardian of the gates then gives him a human skull, saying that it can teach Alexander more wisdom than he has acquired in all his conquests. The great warrior angrily throws the skull fragment down. 

But then a learned man among his retinue suggests that the skull be weighed with gold. To Alexander’s surprise, the skull outweighs all the gold brought to the scales. He asks the man if there is anything that could outweigh his small fragment of skull from the gates of Paradise. ‘Yes’, says the learned man. ‘This fragment, great king, is the socket of a human eye which, though small in compass, is unbounded in desire. The more gold it has the more it craves for and is never satisfied. But once it is laid in the grave, there is an end to its lust and ambition’. The wise man then asked Alexander to have the eye socket covered in dirt. As soon as this was done, the gold outweighed the eye socket. 

Great though his warrior powers might be, even Alexander is subject to human limitations and needs to become wiser. No hero, however exalted, wins everything, all the time, a theme echoed in other warrior traditions.


  • [i] Cavendish, R. (ed.), Legends of the World, Orbis, London, 1982, pp. 106-107, 230-234, 283-284 for some examples. Alexander is even celebrated in countries he did not visit, notably Georgia, see Elene Gogiashvili, ‘Alexander of Macedon in Georgian Folktales’, Folklore Vol. 127, Iss. 2, 2016, pp. 196-209. 
  • [ii] Leach, M. (ed.), Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. 2 vols., Funk & Wagnall, New York, 1972, vol. 1 pp. 34-5.
  • [iii] Abbott, G., Macedonian Folklore, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1903, pp. 279-289, Eberhard, W. (ed.), (trans. Parsons, D.), Folktales of China, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1965 (1937), pp. 91, 219, Ranelagh, E., The Past We Share: The Near Eastern Ancestry of Western Folk Literature, Quartet Books, London, 1979, pp. 45-80, Stoneman, R. (trans. and ed.), Legends of Alexander the Great, J.M. Dent, London, 1994.
  • [iv] Christensen, A (ed.), Persian Folktales (trans. Kurti, A.), Bell & Sons, London, 1971,
  • [v] Rappoport, A., Myth and Legend of Ancient Israel, 2 vols. Gresham Publishing Co., London, 1928, vol. 1 pp. 126-129.

HOLY GRAILS!

Christ appears to a hermit in a vision, holding a book containing the true history of the Holy Grail. From History of the Holy Grail, French manuscript, early 14th century
Copyright © The British Library Board

There’s a lot of them about, Holy Grails, that is. But one in Spain has an intriguing tale to tell.

The venerable Christian relic known as the Cup of Christ, the Lord’s Chalice and, most evocatively, ‘The Holy Grail’ is the centre of a twisting tale of history and myth. Every facet of its corporeality – shape, colour, size – is uncertain, as is its origins. It is said, variously, to have been the cup or plate used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper; to have been the bowl used to collect Christ’s blood as he died on the Cross, or both. Then again, it might just be a symbol encoding the mysteries and meanings of the Holy Communion.

We first hear of this relic in medieval Europe where it appears in a number of romances from around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This is also the context in which we first hear of the involvement of the Knights Templar in the guardianship of the Grail, a notion that has fed a fecund flow of often farcical fiction right up to the present day. By the fifteenth century it melded into the Celtic Arthurian legends then very much in vogue at court and wherever people could afford books and were able to read them, or have them read aloud. Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) is the main vehicle for this transformation. In all these variations of the tale, the Grail is located not in the Middle East but in Europe.

How the Grail actually got from its original location in Jerusalem to Europe is a similarly slippery story. One version is that it was brought by the disciple, Peter, when he went there to bring the gospel to the west. This one, not surprisingly, seems to have at least the tacit approval of the Roman Catholic church given Peter’s significance in its founding. 

Another, more folkloric tradition, concerns Joseph of Arimathea, the man who is said to have taken responsibility for the transmission of the dead Jesus to the disciples who interred him in Joseph’s garden in a man-made cave.  In this version, of which there are several variants, the Grail is usually said to have been a wooden cup taken to England by Joseph, or his followers, where a Christian institution was founded at Glastonbury. This strand of the legend, which may only date from the late nineteenth century[1] also continues to have potency in the modern era as a variety of people seeking spiritual awareness and confirmation, as well as Christians, actively venerate the Glastonbury area, with its intriguing pre-Christian resonances of standing stones and paganism in general.

None of these stories have any credible historical evidence to support them. Like the obsession of the Nazis with aspects of the Cathar version of the legend,[2] they are purely the blended outcomes of belief and fictioneering, producing a potent and enduring myth.

But, relatively recently, another unexpected strand has been added to the rich narrative of the Holy Grail. In 2006 and 2010, a number of early Islamic manuscripts were said to have been discovered in Egypt and translated. They provide potentially verifiable evidence of the history of one particular object identified as the Holy Grail by Islamic sources as early as 400CE. According to Margarita Torres Sevilla and José Miguel Ortega Del Río, the academic authors of Kings of the Grail, an object long identified as the Holy Grail in its place of imputed was kept in Jerusalem for the first thousand years or so of its existence. There, it was visited and venerated by pilgrim Christians for centuries. 

Jerusalem was under Muslim control at this point and around 1053-54 a Caliph took the Grail and gifted it to a Muslim ruler in Spain. This man wished to develop good diplomatic relations with the Christian Ferdinand 1 of León and decided to send the object to him. By then the object, described as a stone cup, was said to have medicinal powers. The great Muslim leader, Saladin ((Salah-ad-din), would later play a part in this version of the Grail story, using a ‘fine shard’ previously struck from the object to cure his daughter’s illness. The authors of the book use these documents and other evidence to trace the journey of the Grail to where, they argue, is its current resting place, the Basilica of San Isadoro in León.[3]

So, we now have a new and, it seems, authoritative historical identification of the resting place of the Holy Grail. Not Dan Brown’s Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland; not Rennes-le-Château in Cathar country; and not in the glowing mysteries of the Arthurian romances. It’s in Spain.

Whatever we might think of this argument, remembering that it is made by academics from the region, it seems that this line of Grail legend has some serious historical cred. Far more than any of the many other Grails around the world, including several in Britain and Ireland, some in Italy, one in Vienna, and another in America, among others.

Why does it all matter? For Christians, the answer is obvious. The Grail is a relic as closely associated with the body and death of Jesus Christ as possible. It’s up there with the True Cross, the reed used to give him water and the sponge used to cruelly whet his lips with vinegar as he died. As the authors of Kings of the Grail show, these relics were exhibited in the Temple together with their version of the Grail for centuries. 

Interestingly, the Grail does not seem to have been accorded any more significance in this period than the other sacred items, until around the time that it was sent off to Europe for some diplomatic ingratiation. It may be that we owe the evolution of the Holy Grail into Christendom’s most sacred relic to the power politics of the Muslim world as much as the romancing of medieval European troubadours and writers.


[1] S. Baring-Gould, A Book of The West: Being an Introduction to Devon and Cornwall (2 Volumes, Methuen 1899; A Book of Cornwall, Second Edition 1902, New Edition, 1906. 

A W Smith, “‘And Did Those Feet…?’: The ‘Legend’ of Christ’s Visit to Britain” Folklore 100.1 (1989), pp. 63–83.

[2] Umberto Eco, The Book of Legendary Lands, Maclehose, 2013. Chapter 8 ‘The Migrations of the Grail’ on Otto Rahn’s Nazi fantastications and also good on other aspects of Grail legendry. See also chapter 14 on the modern crypto-historical invention of The Priory of Syon and the alleged bloodline of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, as popularised in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

[3] Margarita Torres Sevilla and José Miguel Ortega Del Río, Kings of the Grail: Tracing the Historical Journey of the Cup of Christ to Modern-Day Spain, The Overlook Press, New York, 2015. Translated from the Spanish edition of 2014 by Rosie Marteau.

KING OF THE CANNIBAL ISLANDS

Hokie Pokie Wankie Fum – The King of the Cannibal Islands by William Heath, published by Thomas McLean
hand-coloured etching, published 22 July 1830. 10 1/8 in. x 14 1/4 in. (256 mm x 362 mm) plate size; 11 in. x 16 5/8 in. (279 mm x 422 mm) paper size. Bequeathed by Sir Edward Dillon Lott du Cann, 2018. National Portrait Gallery. Used with permission Under CC Licence.

*

Oh, have you heard the news of late,

About a mighty king so great?

If you have not, ’tis in my pate?

        The King of the Cannibal Islands.

So began a broadside ballad of the early nineteenth century, a song that would live on in popular culture for generations. Herman Melville knew it, fragments ended up in a mid-twentieth century children’s rhyme and it became a popular folk dance tune. 

Who was the King of the Cannibal Islands’, and why was such an inane piece of doggerel so popular for so long?

According to the song, the King was  

‘… so tall, near six feet six.

He had a head like Mister Nick’s,

His palace was like Dirty Dick’s,

‘Twas built of mud for want of bricks,

And his name was Poonoowingkewang,

Flibeedee flobeedee-buskeebang;

And a lot of Indians swore they’d hang

The King of the Cannibal Islands.

Hokee pokee wonkee fum,.

Puttee po pee kaihula cum,

Tongaree, wougaree, chiug ring wum,.

The King of the Cannibal Islands.[iv]

The initial cause of the song’s composition was a grisly tale of shipwreck and mystery.

After transporting a cargo of convicts to Sydney Cove in 1809, the Boyd under Captain John Thompson sailed from Sydney in October that year. Aboard were around seventy passengers and crew, including a number of Maori, one a chief’s son named Te Ara. Thompson was keen to obtain some kauri spears to add to his cargo of seal skins, coal, lumber and whale oil. Te Ara recommended Whangaroa where his people lived and where he assured Thompson there were excellent stands of kauri.

The Boyd moored and Te Ara went to greet his kin after a long absence. The Maori came aboard the ship and relations were cordial at first, until Thompson took a small boat party ashore to search for spears. They never returned. The Whangaroa Maori clubbed and axed them all to death. The Maori then rowed out to the Boyd and began to massacre those aboard, dismembering the victims while a few survivors watched in horror from the rigging. 

At the end, only five of those aboard the ship escaped the butchery, aided by Te Pahi, a visiting Maori chief from the Bay of Islands apparently shocked at the scene.  One survivor was later killed, leaving Ann Morley and her baby, a two-year-old Betsey Boughton and cabin boy Thom Davies in dangerous captivity.

What caused such brutal events?

At some point before the Boyd reached Whangaroa, Te Ara was lashed to a capstan and either flogged or threatened this punishment by Captain Thompson for his refusal to work his passage. He protested that he was a chief’s son and should not be so basely punished but was mocked by the sailors and denied food. This was a loss of face among his people triggering an obligation to take revenge. [i] A dreadful vengeance it was.

According to the rescuers under Alexander Berry who arrived at the scene in December there was evidence of mass cannibalism. As Berry later wrote: ‘The horrid feasting on human flesh which followed would be too shocking for description’.[ii] They also found the charred remains of the Boyd, apparently blown up when the Maori tried unsuccessfully to make use of the muskets and gunpowder aboard. The flames ignited the whale oil and the ship quickly burned and sank, a number of Maori, including, including Te Ara’s father, dying in the conflagration. 

Assisted by Maori from the Bay of Islands, Berry secured the safe return of the four survivors as well as the government despatches and private letters carried by the Boyd. Betsey was in a poor condition, crying ‘Mamma, my mamma’.[iii]After threatening the killers with a murder trial in Europe Berry relented, avoiding further bloodletting, though so great were tensions in the region that a planned mission settlement was postponed for several years.

Berry took the remaining four survivors on his ship. They were bound for the Cape of Good Hope but suffered storm damage and eventually ended up in Lima, Peru. Here Mrs Morley died. Davies went to England aboard another ship and the two children went with Berry to Rio de Janeiro and then to Sydney.

Meanwhile, news of the massacre, cannibalism and capture of the survivors fuelled darker emotions. Men from a small fleet of whalers attacked Te Pahi and his people. This seems to have been a complete misunderstanding of the massacre as Te Pahi by most accounts tried to help the Europeans. Berry may have confused the similar names of the two chiefs in his account of what had happened. Up to 60 Maori and one whaler died in this misguided act of revenge. Te Pahi then attacked the Whangaroa Maori and died from wounds dealt in battle.

In later life, Thom Davies returned to New South Wales where he worked for Berry but was drowned on an expedition to the Shoalhaven River with Berry in 1822. Betsey Broughton married well, living until 1891. Mrs Morley’s daughter eventually ran a school in Sydney.

As the story of the Boyd massacre became more widely known in Britain and beyond, it encouraged both shock and humour. The grisly tale of blood, betrayal, cannibalism and survival fuelled the growth of a ‘savage natives’ stereotype that would become the stock in trade of rip-roaring adventures and south seas island concoctions for decades to come. Pamphlets appeared, warning people against migrating to such dangerous places. Popular comic songs like ‘The King of the Cannibal Islands’ were based on this and other colonial encounters, reflecting European attempts to process such dramatic cultural and social differences through absurdity.

By Louis John Steel (1842-1918) – Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5661558

[i] New Zealand History, ‘A Frontier of Chaos? The Boyd Incident’, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/maori-european-contact-before-1840/the-boyd-incident

[ii] Augustus Earle, A Narrative of Nine Months’ Residence in New Zealand in 1827, Whitecombe & Tombs Limited, London, 1909, chpt 11 at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11933/11933-h/11933-h.htm#CHAPTER_XI, accessed November 2016.

[iii] Alexander Berry in The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, volume 83, 1819, p. 313.

[iv] Eric Ramsden, ‘The Massacre of the Boyd’, The World’s News, 29 April 1939, p. 6, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/137004962?searchTerm=last%20convict%20expiree%20dies&searchLimits=l-australian=y|||l-format=Article|||l-decade=193|||sortby=dateAsc|||l-year=1939|||l-category=Article , accessed February 2021.

[v] National Library of Scotland, http://digital.nls.uk/broadsides/broadside.cfm/id/16439, accessed November 2016.

THE APPEARANCE OF TRUTH – Why People Believe Lies

The Power of Narrative

Some of the most widespread and pernicious forms of untruth come in the form of stories. Urban legends (or ‘myths’), fake news and conspiracy theories have a story structure.

An old favourite horror legend tells of a young couple making out in their car at a lonely place. They hear a noise outside and the man goes to investigate. While he is gone, his girlfriend turns on the car radio to hear a news bulletin that a dangerous maniac has escaped from the local asylum. The boyfriend does not return and the girl become very frightened. Suddenly, she hears a thumping noise on the roof of the car – ‘thump, thump, hump. Terrified, she screws up her courage, opens the door and gets out to see what is causing the noise. Squatting on the roof of the car is the grinning maniac holding the bloodied head of her boyfriend and banging it on the car roof – ‘thump, thump, thump. A favourite among teenagers, this modern legend was always told as a true story and gave nightmares to generations. It might still do so.

Conspiracy theories also have a story structure. The QAnon  delusion is that a network of Satanic paedophilic cannibals is running a global sex trafficking network. President Trump is waging a desperate, covert war against the shadowy figure of ‘Q’ who heads the network. This story, or one of its versions, is worthy of a superhero movie, possibly in production as I write. It is a complete fiction, of course, but  very many Americans, and possibly others, believe it to be true.

Stories like these are told as truth by someone, or ones, the hearer knows, whether personally and face-to-face or through social media. This certifies the claims in the stories as credible through the curious human tendency to believe what we are personally told.

These stories fill an information gap, answer questions, solve a mystery etc., satisfying the human absence of knowing, something we have found unbearable throughout history and probably long before. We must have information, explanation, something, no matter how unverifiable and incredible.

The End of Experts

In the past (before the WWW), it was possible for fake news and other misinformation to be rebutted by those with authoritative credibility – scientists, academics, politicians (some, at least). With the growth of doubt and the demotion of ‘experts’ to simply wielders of another opinion, this is no longer possible. Now, one opinion is as good, or bad, as another, no matter whether it is informed or not.

Paradoxically, greater access to tertiary education since the 1960s has demystified them. Professors are no longer rarefied geniuses pronouncing on their subject from afar as unchallengeable experts. Wafter spending lots of face to face time learning with them, we know they are just the same as the rest of us. While this is good form an equalitarian perspective, it has contributed to the undermining of experts.

Social Media

The growth of the WWW dimension of the internet, particularly that part of it called ‘social media’, has been the single most damaging element in this decline of truth. The sludge that makes up conspiracy theories, urban myth and fake news and the like was always present in society. But individuals only heard, and repeated, it through their limited oral networks, limiting the damage. 

Social media, by contrast, expands everyone’s networks, amplifies what is said on and through them, as well as diffusing it instantaneously around the globe. The ability of social media to mimic the intimacy we all associate with personal, face-to-face interaction is a major element in the spread of misinformation.

Information Overload

To some extent, what is often referred to as ‘information overload’ is a part of the problem. As we have all become increasingly inundated with information through innumerable channels, our ability to screen it, verify or even absorb it has plummeted. Now, we all search for the quickest and shortest scrap of information we can find. Twitter, with its 140-character limit, is the ideal medium to satisfy this need. 

Mainstream Media

The mainstream, mostly commercial, media of press, TV and radio has had a paradoxical role in all this. On the one hand, journalists and some organisations have honoured their ethics and traditions in battling lies, half-truths, dodgy statistics and so on. The emergence of fact checking organisations, sometimes linked with universities, is symptomatic of the desperate need to control the flow of misinformation.

On the opposite side of the ledger, we have seen the rise of ‘shock jocks’ and similar thunderers, usually employed by right-leaning media, belligerently trumpeting fake news and generally playing to the prejudices of their audiences. This has come at the expense of respect for credible, informed opinion and comment, as the possessors of such knowledge are execrated as ‘experts’ who have somehow come to be unreliable, biased or simply wrong because the shock jock, somehow, knows better.

Altogether, these powerful, intertwining forces have produced an information environment where lies rule and verifiable, evidenced facts are dead. The most dramatic demonstration of this process, and its consequences, has been in the United States of America over the last four years. It seems that more than seventy million Americans believe the demonstrable lies about the Presidential elections of 2020, as well as a bubbling brew of conspiracy theories, fake news and simple lies. The end result was the storming of America’s Capitol in January 2021 by  thousands of such people, some armed and apparently determined to do harm to their democratically elected representatives. 

Incredible scenes, yes, but the result of widespread credulity created by the appearance of truth.

MYTH-MAKING IN THE TIME OF THE VIRUS

 

Virus ok

Alissa Eckert, MS, Dan Higgins, MAMS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ID 23312, 2020

 

In general usage, a ‘myth’ is a statement or fact believed to be true, a falsehood. Myths are given credence and spread by rumours and, increasingly, as ‘fake news’ or ‘memes’.

They usually arise as misunderstandings of historical events, statements, and sometimes as deliberate lies invented and spread for political, commercial or religious purposes

A well-known example of a misunderstood statement is an observation once made by the eminent anthropologist, Franz Boas, about the Inuit words for snow. The myth is that the Inuit people of Southwestern Alaska have more words for snow than any other language.

What Boas actually observed, in relation to the linguistic complexities of Inuit and its dialects, was that there were four root words for snow that might be vastly expanded by their use in a variety of linguistic combinations, or lexemes, that might also include individual semantic flourishes.

This fundamental subtlety was subsequently misunderstood by many to mean that the Inuit did have one hundred distinct words for snow. In fact, they might have one hundred or more lexemes for snow but not one hundred individual words, as the myth has it.

A more significant issue than the number of Inuit words for snow is this: what was it about the Inuit people (then termed ‘Eskimo’), their language and its cultural meanings, that led to the spread of this misstatement and its perpetuation to the present day?

The answer is that it’s all about ‘us’, not ‘them’.

When Boas and others were studying the Inuit in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a widespread fascination with these indigenous people and their inconceivably hard way of life. For a few decades, the Inuit, and other indigenous groups in polar regions, were the darlings of folklorists, anthropologists, filmmakers and journalists. In short, the Inuit were seen through western eyes as ‘exotic others’. ‘Their’ lives were so drastically different from the western norm that something that so clearly and conveniently represented that difference made sense to ‘us’. Of course, such different people somehow surviving in perpetual ice and snow would have lots of words to describe their situation. Makes sense. Mmm.

This small popular delusion is pretty harmless, unlike many other prejudiced and pernicious myths western culture has evolved about exotic others. Perceptions of black people as monkey-like have a long history and have not gone away, for the same reason the Inuit words for snow myth has not. ‘They’ are not like ‘us’ whites.

One popular perception of human evolution is that non-Europeans are further down the evolutionary scale and therefore closer to the apes. Obvious, isn’t it? That’s what Darwin said.

Of course, Darwin said no such thing, but his biological ideas were applied to culture in the perversion usually called ‘social Darwinism, and it was asserted by experts that just as the plant and animal kingdoms evolved through natural selection, popularly understood as ‘survival of the fittest’, so did people. Obviously western culture was the preeminent result of this process and any culture that didn’t have our technological, religious, organisational and (supposedly) moral attainments was obviously at a lower stage of evolution and, therefore, inferior. Closer to monkeys than clever us. Science proves it. Mmm.

Despite the overwhelming abundance of evidence to the contrary, this apparently authoritative explanation provided an expert validation of a prejudice that had existed in European society since at least the medieval era. *

As well as the story itself, mythmaking also depends on those who tell the tale. The role of the ‘expert’ in confirming and spreading myth has recently expanded. Unqualified celebrities, politicians and those with usually fringe political agendas have increasingly taken over from experts as arbiters of opinion, masquerading as ‘fact’. The reasons for this are complex and include the erosion of trust in civil institutions and traditionally prominent influencers since the 1960s. In this century, the internet has accelerated and amplified this trend to its currently dangerous levels.

Right now, we are seeing the influence of the new storytellers in the context of the Corona virus pandemic. Large numbers of people prefer to believe random commentators and opinionists in the mainstream and social media about medical and scientific matters, particularly those related to so-called ‘cures’.

Alongside this we have another example of negative perceptions of exotic others, in this case, the Chinese, who have been blamed for the outbreak due to their culinary habits, alleged poor hygiene, incompetence or, the conspiracy theory version, by deliberately manufacturing and spreading the virus.

There are many other prejudicial myths that originate, evolve, and proliferate through these complex processes of history, ignorance and delusion. They persist because they fill a cultural and psychological need to perceive otherness in usually negative terms.* The particular combination of the progressive erosion of trust, the proliferation and consequences of new communication technology, and the always existing compulsion for humans to see things in terms of ‘us and them’, has now reached a potentially disastrous moment for us all.

 

* For a useful overview of this process see https://theconversation.com/comparing-black-people-to-monkeys-has-a-long-dark-simian-history-55102

* For a more detailed look at the complex psychological and cultural processes involved in mythmaking, see David Robson’s The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes https://davidrobson.me/the-intelligence-trap/

 

THE RETURN OF TYPHOID MARY

Mary_Mallon_(Typhoid_Mary)

‘Typhoid Mary’

 

Now she is called ‘Public Harm Auntie’ – in South Korea. In the 1980s and 90s she was known in the western world as ‘AIDS Mary’, a virulent and reckless transmitter of the HIV virus. In the twentieth-century America she was known as ‘Typhoid Mary’.

These creatures of twisted history and folklore were – and are – said to be spreading deadly disease. In early 2020, Public Harm Auntie is wantonly infecting South Koreans with Corona virus, or COVID-19.

How durable are these mass delusions, the spawn of fear and misinformation? Mary Mallon, born in Ireland in 1869 migrated to the USA where she worked as a domestic and cook for wealthy households. In 1906, it was discovered that the families she worked for had developed typhoid. It turned out that Mary was a carrier of the disease, and immune to it herself. Authorities quarantined her and later let her free on condition she never worked as a cook again. Unfortunately, Mary did. When she was discovered, she was again quarantined – for twenty-three years until her death in 1938.

Over this period, a worldwide typhoid epidemic raged, killing one in ten victims. Assisted by the press, panic erupted in America centred on Mary’s grim reaper status. Hysteria, misinformation and prejudice did their usually dirty work and Mary became the cause of untold typhoid deaths across the country.

As always, the reality was much different. Mary was a carrier who never contracted the disease herself, as were about fifty others. Mary only infected 33 people, three of whom died of the disease.

AIDS Mary (sometimes ‘Harry’) was, according to popular belief, at least as lethal. But, unlike Mary Mallon, she never existed. And while Public Harm Auntie appears to be an actual person, the alleged number of her infections with COVID-19 is undoubtedly swelled through the transmission of rumour as much as the virus.

Typhoid May, AIDS Mary (Harry) and Public Harm Auntie were [products of the pre-digital era. Now we have the greatest transmitter of falsehood, ignorance and fake news ever invented. The World Wide Web will ensure that this information virus spreads much faster than the disease itself.

REFERENCE:

David Mikkelson, ‘Did Typhoid Mary Cause the Deaths of Thousands of People?’, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/typhoid-mary/. The Snopes investigative and fact checking site is highly recommended as a vaccination against bullshit.

FACT AND FAKE – THE FIRST ANZAC DAY

anzac pak high res

Photographs by JarrahTree…commons.wikimedia.org

 

Albany historian, Douglas Sellick, presents a myth-busting guest post on the real history of Australia’s most powerful tradition. He provides the real story and also a mystery…

*

In the Western Australian town of Albany from where many single voyage troopships and two great military convoys departed for the Great War there is a recently installed  municipal memorial plinth in front of the Anglican Church on which is reported a great deal of mis-information relevant to the Anglican parish church S. John the Evangelist, its Parish Priest and the civic happenings on Anzac Day in Albany between 1918 and 1938.

The main part of the text on the parish church plinth reads:

…on the morning of 24th February 1918, a very special service was held at St. John’s Church that would shape future ANZAC Day commemorations. A mass for the war dead of World War 1 was offered by visiting Reverend and army chaplain, Arthur Ernest White. Reverend White – or Padre White as he was known – followed the service with a pilgrimage to Mt. Clarence. Atop Mt. Clarence looking across King George’s Sound, memories were conjured of the great fleet which had departed only a few years earlier. To pay tribute to the troops, “the flower of Australian manhood”, Padre White arranged for a boatman to cast a wreath into its waters.

 Also inaccurate is a local newspaper article dated Friday, April 26, 2019 which begins:

Easter dawns with tradition. Worshippers packed into St. John’s Anglican Church in Albany on Sunday for the [9.30am.] Easter Eucharist. The service followed the traditional Easter Sunday dawn service honouring Padre Ernest White, who held Albany’s first Anzac Day dawn service in 1930 at the top of Mt. Clarence…

Both these careless items are perfect examples of local “made up” or “fake history” of very important Anzac Day events and people in 1916, 1918, 1930, 1931, 1937 and 1938.

New research, focusing on the important happenings on significant Anzac Days in Albany has revealed many myths which have gone uncorrected. It is obvious the above historical information has been compiled by researchers and writers without the benefit of primary research. Their findings have been copied and used by tour guides, municipal local histories, tourist brochures and scores of popular internet sites over many years. Also, there is the municipal claim that Albany is “where the great Anzac Legend had its beginning”, which completely ignores the first military embarkation ports of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide, Wellington, Lyttleton, Port Chalmers and Fremantle. Alas, all these mistakes have had the effect of perpetuating Albany’s famous history myths.

What then is the true Albany story?

The true Albany Anzac Day story of 1930 must start with the 1912 arrival in Albany of the The Reverend Arthur White, BSB, London born and English trained priest-member of the Bush Brotherhood of S. Boniface in Western Australia whose Clergy House was at Williams,  a small town north on the old road to Perth. Fr. White visited Albany often in pre-war days and made a considerable number of friends. He delivered his first Albany sermon at Evensong in S. John’s Church on Sunday, 27th October 1912 and celebrated Holy Communion for the first time in Albany at the 8 a.m. in S. John’s Church on Christmas Day in 1913. The date of 24th February 1918 claiming to be the date the first Dawn Service in Albany celebrated by Fr. White is wrong. However, Fr. White was indeed in church that Sunday morning officiating at three morning services:  8am Holy Communion, 10am The Litany and 11am Matins, because the Rector, Archdeacon Thomas Louch was away from the parish. There is no record of an entry in S. John’s Service Register of any other regular Holy Communion service or Private Mass Fr. White may have celebrated during any of his recorded visits to Albany prior to 1929.

In 1930, Anglican Dawn Church Services were conducted in parish churches in Western Australia in Collie, Northam and Roebourne, and quite possibly elsewhere around Australia and New Zealand.  In 1930 Albany was just one of many places to hold an early morning Dawn Requiem service  on 25 April, which is also S. Mark’s Day in the church calendar. It is important to remember a service is a formal church ceremony of worship and cannot be applied to many of the very first informal silent gatherings of servicemen at dawn which occurred in some other places around Australia claiming to be the site of the Australia’s first dawn service.

The first Albany public Anzac Day Commemoration of the district war dead was during Matins at 11a.m. in 1916 in S. John’s Church, the names of known soldiers were first read out by the Church Warden, this event was followed by a civic service held in the Albany Town Hall organised by the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia, the Women’s Auxiliary and the Sons of Soldiers’ League. Later the returned Services League (RSL) organized a street parade to the Albany War Memorial on York Street. These rather clumsy parades were held in various forms for many years until the RSL officially re-organised their membership rules and parade procedures in 1925.

The Albany Anglican dawn service in 1930 was simply following a then Church of England custom of the daily early morning celebrating of the Eucharist, the tradition lasted at S. John’s for about fifty years and was never revived, being replaced on Anzac Day by the present day RSL type service and parade.

 

The Mystery of the 1930 Albany Dawn Service

In The Albany Advertiser’s first edition on 24th April 1930, under CHURCH NEWS and the heading  CHURCH OF ENGLAND appears the following announcement :

Saint John’s Church, Anzac Day.

6 a.m. Service at Dawn.  Holy Communion.

Recital of Names of the Fallen.

Procession to the War Memorial.

Laying of Wreaths.

 On Anzac Day directly after the Dawn Requiem Mass Fr. White, using a steel nib and black ink, filled in his Service Register as required by Canon Law and his Bishop. No other person is permitted to make any entry in this Register other than the parish priest. I have carefully examined Fr White’s entries, his handwriting in black ink appears hurried and spidery. However, in another hand alongside the main entry are the mysterious bracketed words ‘First Dawn Service held in Australia’ made by a wide fountain pen nib in blue ink by a person or persons unknown, it was certainly not made by Fr. White. This claim has been vigorously maintained by local parish and civic historians, they insist that this extra entry was categorically made by Father White.  If it was, how was he to know it was Australia’s first dawn service he had just celebrated?  Nor would he have added any additional entry in the Service Register.

The evidence of the extra entry suggests an un-authorised and illegal entry made in blue fountain pen ink by an ever-helpful parishioner or an interested local historian at a later date alongside the principal service entry of the day. Who made this entry? It has become one of the most poignant myths of the period. Unsuspecting local church and civic historians failed to pick up this strange discrepancy and its careless use has been accepted by many as fact and has become one of the many strange Albany historical myths, including the myth Fr White returned in 1923 for a holiday.  In 1923 he was hard at work in Broken Hill and the Riverina all that year and spending a few weeks holiday on Kangaroo Island.

 

The True  Story of the Anglican Parish Pilgrimage of 1931.

 The local tradition of an Anglican Parish Pilgrimage to the summit of Mount Clarence on Anzac Day began in 1931, not 1930, at a site now known as “Padre White’s Lookout” so named by a municipal worthy who had perhaps viewed a 1938 photograph of Fr White standing rock looking out to sea. Look-Outs are popular in scenic Albany.

The pilgrimage custom arose as follows: After the second Dawn Service Father White and some of the congregation reached the rocky summit of Mount Clarence well after dawn had passed. They gathered in silence there to remember those whose names were not recorded on parish or district war memorials but had passed by Albany throughout the war.The Albany Advertiser on Monday 27th April 1931 under its Church News column reported: ‘Following the Dawn Service at St. John’s a small party climbed Mount Clarence to over-look the anchorage where in 1914 the first convoy of transports assembled to carry the Anzacs to war’.

In the years following this simple pilgrimage initiated by Fr White, became part of the Dawn Service custom at S. John’s Church.  Many years later in Queensland he told one of the Sisters of Sacred Advent at St. Mary’s School in Herberton that he considered that climb to be his personal pilgrimage. This pilgrimage site and custom should not be confused with the present day RSL Dawn Service at the site of the Desert Mounted Corps Memorial which is a short distance down from the summit of Mount Clarence. Today, a recently established RSL style service on Mount Clarence is held before a huge crowd at dawn on Anzac Day. This RSL gathering originated shortly after the relocation from Egypt of the famous Desert Mounted Corps Memorial at the head of Apex Drive just below the summit of Mount Clarence. This grand memorial, incorrectly called locally the Anzac Memorial was originally situated on the banks of the Suez Canal, was re-erected and dedicated at Albany on Sunday 11th October 1964.

 

The True  Story The Sound  Wreath and Boatman of 1937.

Early in 1937 Fr White made a suggestion to the local RSL and TocH that they might like to make arrangements for a boatman to drop a wreath into the narrow entrance of The Princess Royal Harbour. It was thought the wreath would float out into King George Sound on the early tide.  The first occasion the custom was successfully carried out by a member of the Harbour Master’s staff, standing on the end of the Harbour Master’s jetty was on Anzac Day, Sunday 25th April 1937. On the day it had been decided a boat was not necessary.

This event could not have seen from the summit of Mount Clarence as claimed by many town witnesses between 1930 and 1936 due to the fact the shoreline of King George Sound is obscured by Mount Adelaide. The tiny wreath even if it had been carried far out into King   George Sound would have been difficult to see even with powerful binoculars.  The telling of this event has confused many, lasting only a few years and declined shortly after the start of Second World War in 1940.

 

The True Story of the Famous Summit Photograph of 1938

The most frequently used black and white photograph of Father White depicting him on the summit of Mount Clarence was taken as a young girl by Mrs. Patricia Davies, the widow of an Anglican priest, a close friend of the Rector. The 1938 photograph depicts Father White standing on a large rock in silhouette in street clothes looking out to sea. This subject must be one of the more bizarre myths associated with Albany’s history. Many years later when reproduced for the first time the caption stated it depicts ‘Arthur Ernest White, at Mount Clarence, Anzac Day Service, 25 April 1930’.  A weirder mistake which has become a myth cannot be imagined. Father White is doing no such thing, in fact, he was enjoying a last visit to Mt. Clarence on the very day – Friday 20th May 1938 – he sailed away to become the Parish Priest at Forbes in New South Wales.

This information was given to me by Mrs Davies because I had asked her to confirm the circumstances of the photograph and sort her opinion relevant to its incorrect use. It was her opinion the photograph had fallen in the hands of an unknown amateur parish historian who misunderstood its real significance and captioned it with “made up” details. Regrettably, this photograph has been used incorrectly in many publications. This I fear is because of the surprising prominence given in the official exhibition and guide to the Albany National Anzac Centre. The official, though false, caption reads ‘Arthur Ernest White, at Mount Clarence, Anzac Day Dawn Service, 25 April 1930. Courtesy of St. John’s Anglican Church, Albany’.  This incorrect and absurd caption, accompanied by a very poor, disjoined biography of Father White’s priestly life, must surely rank as the source of the most ludicrous myth relating to the true site of Albany’s first Anzac Day Dawn Service in St. John’s Church. More the pity it is part of the Official Exhibition and Guide to The National Anzac Centre at The Princess Royal Fortress in Albany

 

Sources

The Albany Advertiser various editions 1914-1939, Barrier Miner, Broken Hill, Cairns Post, The Church Chronicle, The Western Australian Church News, Bunbury Diocesan Year Book, Crockford’s Clerical Directory, 1953 Edition. The Anglican Religious Communities Year Book various and current issues. The RSL Listening Post, The Western Mail, Perth various editions 1911-1948. Albany Parish Service Registers 1901-1948, Batty Library of Western Australian History. The Albany Wizbang. Official Organ of the Albany Sub-Branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League 1936-1941. The Link (TocH) 1926-1973 all found in the National Library of Australia, National Archives of Australia and the State Library of Western Australia.

Conversations with a retired Sister of the Sacred Advent in Brisbane, a Sister of the Community of  Holy Name, Melbourne. The late Reverend Father Tony Bolt of Albany who was taught Greek and Latin by Father White, Brigadier John White, son. Father John A. Moses & George F. Davis, Anzac Day Origins: Canon D.J. Garland and Trans-Tasman Commemoration, Canberra; Barton Books, 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

THE DEVIL RODE OUT – THE SATANIC RITUAL ABUSE (SRA) SCARE

640px-Albrecht_Dürer_-_Knight,_Death_and_Devil_(NGA_1943.3.3519)

Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death and the Devil (German: Ritter, Tod und Teufel), 1513.

At the end of the 1970s and the start of the 80s, North American psychiatrists began reporting adult, mainly female, patients claiming ritual torture, sex abuse and Satanism in childhood. These people often exhibited Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), an ability to shift from one personality to another due to, some psychiatrists hypothesised, their need as victims to create ‘safe’ personalities without memory of the abuse. It was only when these memories were elicited through various forms of ‘therapy’, that the ‘facts’ came out. These ‘recovered memories’ were soon promoted to the status of ‘Repressed Memory Syndrome’.

In 1980 one of these women, a Canadian named Michelle Smith, published a book in conjunction with her therapist, a Dr Lawrence Padzer. Titled Michelle Remembers, the book documented Michelle Smith’s memories of childhood Satanic abuse, as ‘recovered’ through her therapy with Padzer. It became a best-seller in the United States and also in the United Kingdom, influencing police and social workers in both these countries, and elsewhere, including Australia. In 1981, Padzer, a fervent Christian, coined the term ‘ritual abuse’, by which time he had become a sought-after ‘authority’ and proselytiser of the subject.

In 1983, Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) allegations were first heard in the USA by Kenneth Lanning and others at the FBI Behavioural Science Unit, part of the FBI Academy in Virginia. At first, Lanning and officers involved in the investigation of child sexual abuse took these reports seriously. However, as he points out in his 1992 ‘Investigator’s Guide to Allegations of ‘Ritual’ Child Abuse’, while there were many claiming to be victims of SRA ‘there is little or no corroborative evidence’.

In North America there were many cases involving SRA, beginning in the early 1980s. One of the best-known and notorious of these was the McMartin Pre-School Case in which many allegations were made against staff of a Californian child-care facility. Between 1983-87, the subsequent legal proceedings found no evidence against the accused. It was said then to have been longest and most expensive legal debacle in US history.

A long-running ritual child abuse case in Saskatchewan, Canada, ended in 1996 with a mixed verdict that found some sexual abuse occurred. A professor of psychology called in to analyse the interviews with the child victims described the entire investigation as ‘a witch-hunt’. The judge pointed out that the prosecution had no physical evidence of the accused being involved with ‘the Devil’s Church’.

The absence of physical evidence for allegations of SRA is a constant thread in a number of official investigations carried out around the world.  In Lanning’s thorough analysis of the considerable number of cases already reported at that time, the author and other investigators were unable to substantiate even one verifiable claim of satanic murder.

Much the same results came from other studies, including one in 1994 by the United States National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect that surveyed nearly 7000 clinicians and therapists working in the field and almost 5000 agencies involved in relevant activities. In over 12000 cases of suspected SRA, only one was proven to have any organised satanic content, though some incidents involved secondary aspects of ritual abuse. Especially significant was the finding that most individual clinicians and most agencies reported only one or two alleged SRA cases, while a small percentage of individuals and agencies reported hundreds.

There was no correlation between stories told by children of alleged SRA experiences and the ‘suppressed memories’ of those who claimed SRA in their childhoods. The report speculated that therapists were creating childhood abuse memories by their therapy techniques. There was no evidence of child pornography with satanic themes in the United States, nor of other alleged satanic activities, such as generational Satanists.

The study did, however, uncover evidence of Christian ritual abuse of children, practised mainly by a few fundamentalist sects, including ‘beating the devil’ out of a child as part of an exorcism and resorting to prayer rather than seeking medical help.

In 1991 the Utah State Legislature instituted an Inquiry into allegations of SRA occurring in that state. This was in response to a newspaper’s poll finding that over 90% of Utah residents believed in SRA, allied with increasing allegations from within the Mormon Church that some of its most prominent members were involved in SRA. Two professional investigators interviewed hundreds of victims of alleged SRA, noting the details and following up all available leads. They found evidence for only one case of Satanic Ritual Abuse involving torture of children and simulated murder of infants. This case was not prosecuted because of the statute of limitations in the state of Utah.

Investigations elsewhere reached very similar conclusions. In Holland an inquiry found that there was no evidence for such activities and that they were largely in the minds of those who reported them. Whether widely promulgated or not, the findings of these professional investigations had little or no effect upon the allegations, the prosecutions and the occasional gaoling of individuals accused of such crimes.

British publication of Michelle Remembers began a gradual increase in allegations of SRA throughout the UK. These cases primarily involved social work agencies and police, many of whom were ‘trained’ by visiting American ‘experts’ in various forms of investigation methods and counselling of sexually abused children. American folklorist Bill Ellis conducted an important study of the processes by which the Satan scare reached Britain from the United States. He traced the origins of modern interest in, and influence of, satanism in the works of Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardiner and others and also notes the long, if usually submerged traditions of witchcraft and black magic in Britain. A fundamental element of Ellis’ study is the interaction between the folkloric beliefs and press, television, film and popular literature. Ellis draws a direct line between the histories, mythologies and incidents discussed in his article and the disastrous events that subsequently took place in Rochdale and the Orkney Islands.

The Orkney Islands SRA case was the best-known of the many such events. Beginning in early 1991, the Orkney’s affair involved early morning raids by social workers and the forced separation of parents and children. Medical examination of the children found no evidence of sexual abuse but this, together with widely-expressed doubts about the veracity of child testimonies, did not prevent some years of acrimonious legal and governmental debate. Although the prosecution case in this matter collapsed, the parents mounted a very large legal claim for damages against the British government.

In the wake of this and other similar debacles, including the Rochdale case (dismissed in 1991), came the findings of a report into satanic ritual abuse of children by emeritus Professor Jean La Fontaine, social anthropologist. La Fontaine was commissioned by the Department of Health and given access to the records of 84 British SRA cases going back to 1988. Her investigative team was formed at Manchester University and issued its report in 1994. In only three of these was evidence found of ritual activity combined with sexual abuse. Her conclusion regarding the remaining 81 cases was that satanic ritual abuse ‘was not happening and is not happening’.

Generally, the report observed that the interviews with children, upon which the legal cases were generally based, were poorly done, with frequent and aggressive questioning.  Rumours of SRA had been spread on the basis of dubious information and some Evangelical Christians, psychologists, child-care workers, and health-care professionals were responsible for the transmission of these delusions. The report concluded that there was no SRA in Britain and that the efforts and energy being put into attempting to prove that there was only had the unhappy effect of diverting attention and resources away from those children who were genuinely suffering at the hands of real – i.e., non-Satanist – abusers.

In 2019, a documentary on this topic, titled Demonic, was the only Australian film to feature at the Cannes Film Festival. Director Pia Borg gave her motivation for making the film as “I feel like the Satanic panic is something that people are a little bit ashamed of … something that was swept under the rug.”

REFERENCES:

Ellis, B. (1992). Satanic Ritual Abuse and Legend Ostension. Journal of Psychology and Theology20(3), 274–277. https://doi.org/10.1177/009164719202000324

Bill Ellis, Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, University of Kentucky Press, 2000.

La Fontaine, J S. The extent and nature of organised and ritual abuse: research findings.London: HMSO, 1994.

Wikipedia entry, ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse’, accessed May 2019.

Republished in The Next Truth, July-August 2020