Luke Rykell and the Cursed Tarot Deck

How can you trace the origin of evil? Sometimes it begins with good intentions or a desire to staunch a great sorrow. The Rykell Tarot cards began this way: with actions of love, death, and betrayal. The full story of how this single deck of Tarot cards managed to survive more than 600 years is mystery. Only islands of certainty exist.

The earliest photo of the Rykell Tarot taken circa 1860.

The earliest photo of the Rykell Tarot taken circa 1860.

We know that Luke John Rykell was born in England around 1400. He went on to become a tregetour, or a juggler and magician, for the royal court in London. John Lydgate, a monk and poet, wrote about Luke Rykell performing for Henry V. Lydgate spoke of Rykell’s keen ability at sleight of hand, earning him the honor of an audience with the king.

Maister John Rykell, sometime tregitour
Of noble Henry kinge of Englonde,
And of France the mighty conqueror;
For all the sleightes, and turnyng of thyne honde,
Thou must come nere this dance, I understonde;
Nought may avail all thy conclusions,
For Dethe shortly, nother on see nor land,
Is not desceyved by no illusions.To this summons the sorrowful juggler replies:–

Death was not deceived by Luke’s parlor tricks and made itself known through the Black plague. The disease whipped through Luke’s troop of performers, killing everyone except Luke and his brother. In the wake of this disaster, the cursed Tarot cards were born.

It is rumored that Luke Rykell, distraught over the death of his only love (an unnamed girl performer in his troop), struck a deal with the Devil.

Luke travelled to Scotland to a plot of land called Clootie’s Croft. This land was left untilled as a gift to the devil. There he agreed to create the Tarot cards with a spirit known as Donald Cloots. The spirit is trapped in the cards and feeds on the souls of the people who use the deck.

The first documented appearance of the cards doesn’t happen again until over 400 years later. Eleanore Bishop came across the cards while traveling in Europe. She brought the deck back to the Philadelphia.

The only photo that survives is one showing her standing next to a chair. The empty seat represents her husband, who vanished mysteriously.

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Rumors swirled around his disappearance. Some say he travelled south to fight in the Civil War and was killed in battle. However her husband, Eugene Bishop, was not a fighting man. At the age of sixty-two, the most he could offer the war effort was his bankroll.

Most people assumed that Eleanore disposed of her husband in order to gain access to his fortune. Although this seems plausible, it doesn’t explain why she gave nearly all her time and resources into a church run charity. Was it guilt over possible involvement in her husband’s death?

One detail that evades us is the photo itself. The fingerprints on the front show that someone held the picture a short time after it was taken. (The tintype photos used the wet process of collodion emulsion, which was sensitive to the touch.) Therefore, it must have been held by someone who witnessed the sitting for the photograph. These prints match those found at a crime scene in 1942, eighty years after the photo was taken.

Moreover, several other fingerprints, from the 1960s and 1980s, both match the original prints on the photograph. Could these all belong to the same person? Perhaps Luke Rykell has kept himself alive through the cursed tarot cards.

We do know that shortly after Eugene Bishop’s death, there is no further mention of the Tarot cards. On her death bed, in 1888, a witness remembered and wrote down Eleanore Bishop’s final words.

“My only crime came not from my soul, but the luck of the draw.”

Tim Kane

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The Surreal Terror of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis has a logical and scientific explanation. It’s a phenomenon where you partially wake up from sleep, but your muscles still remain frozen. A biological glitch in our bodies causing one part of us to wake from the dream, while the rest of the body is on lockdown. Perfectly explainable. Yet try telling that to someone who’s lived through it.

The experience can be terrible. You’re still dreaming and the things you see appear real. But you cannot move or speak or scream.

You are frozen in terror, staring up at the monstrous creations of your subconscious.

Sleep paralysis is actually a protection mechanism designed to keep you safe while dreaming. The images and scenarios in your dream are vivid and seem real. If a tiger leaps out, you scream and run. Your muscles are locked down to prevent you from flailing about or making a large racket (that would have attracted predators back in the day).

Even as we understand more about this phenomenon, there’s no denying the surreal quality it evokes—to see your dreams as real, right there before you. Photographer Nicolas Bruno has captured some of these images. He is a victim of sleep paralysis and his photos are a window into his subconscious mind.

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Bruno began to jot down notes about his dreams. He wanted to recreate them using recurring imagery (like gas masks, bowler hats, or lanterns) and compose them the way a painter would. His photos show a haunting world that Bruno describes as  “a bittersweet homage” to his dream-world life.

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Often times, dreams serve as a way to work through the events of a day. But dreams aren’t logical. They are an emotional outlet. You typically see your fears come alive, such as being buried alive. The fears don’t make sense. It’s your minds way of dealing with them.

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Because dreams mash up images, the result can seem surreal and downright strange. We move from place to place instantly.

The glitch of sleep paralysis has haunted humanity for thousands of years. Over that time, cultures created creatures that stalk us in the night as a way to explain the frightening sessions of paralysis. They myths center around nocturnal monsters or demons.

In the Amazon, we have the Boto, a river dolphin that transforms at night into a vaguely human creature. It wears a hat to cover it’s blowhole. In Africa, the night prowler takes the form of a bear. Known as the Tokoloshe, it slinks in at night and bites the toes off children as they sleep.

A carving of a Tokoloshe.

A carving of a Tokoloshe.

The folks at the Sleep Paralysis Project, along with director Carla MacKinnon, have created a documentary about sleep paralysis. This both serves as an explanation and a terrifying vision of the phenomenon. Be warned, if you don’t suffer from bad dreams, you will after watching this.

The film Devil in the Room depicts the grotesque creatures alongside the scientific explanation. It was meant to evoke the feeling of sleep paralysis and I say it does a damn good job.

Tim Kane

What Happens When a Giant Wants to Eat You?

I’ll be honest, I don’t keep up with Anime. Recently, I stumbled across an awesome series in Japan called Attack on Titan. The long and short of this series involves giants (called Colossus) that like nothing better than to gobble up us poor humans.

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Apparently, this series has gone viral in Japan. There are hundreds of photos of people pretending to be giants and eating other people.

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Then the Titan phenomenon reached a new level with Subaru. The car company created a commercial with the colossi attacking the vehicle. Watch it on YouTube.

So be careful the next time you’re driving through Japan.

Tim Kane

The Bloody Eye of Horus

Ever read a newspaper story about someone mutilated in an accident? We can’t look away from these things. As human beings, we’re drawn to the macabre. It seems the Ancient Egyptians were no different. The myth surrounding the eyes of Horus (god of kingship, victory, and the sky) is a bizarre tale.

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Illustration by James Ryman. Click to go to his website.

Every year I help put on an Egypt Day at my school for the sixth graders. This year, I wanted to give them a taste for the myths of the Egyptians. After digging around through my books, I discovered some really bizarre things about Horus.

First off, there are so many legends and myths in Egypt that contradict each other. For example, the god Seth is sometimes Horus’s brother and other times his uncle.I settled for one that I could string together in one sitting.

The Left Eye of Horus (The Wadjet Eye)

The Egyptians had two different types of desert: The red desert and the black desert. As Westerners, we’re trained to think of black as evil, but the opposite was true in Egypt. If you travel down to Home Depot or Lowes and buy some potting soil, chances are it will be black. That’s because black soil meant life. Red soil, at least to the Egyptians, represented the dry harsh desert.

Horus was the god of the black desert, which meant he represented life. His brother, Seth, stood for the red desert. So obviously these guys weren’t going to get along. As I researched this, their dynamic seemed similar to Thor and Loki.

Seth was jealous of Osiris, their third and eldest brother (a whole lot of other mythology surrounds the resurrection of Osiris and is better left to those with more authority). Let’s just say that Seth wanted what Osiris had and was willing to fight to get it.

Seth transformed himself into a bull (lots of animal transformations with these older gods) and trampled Osiris to death. Horus sough Seth out for revenge. Seth dealt the first blow, ripping out Horus’s left eye. Seth then cut the eye into six pieces.

Each piece became magical and stood for one of the basic senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and thought.

But still, Horus wanted his eye back. He turned to Thoth (god of Wisdom and the guy who always seems to get Egyptian gods out of a jam). Thoth glued the pieces back together using spit. Yes, spit.

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Here’s the geeky math part in me. Each part of Horus’s eye stood for a fraction. ( The part was also the hieroglyphic symbol for that fraction). When you add all the parts together, something interesting happens.

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When you create common denominators (I also teach math in my myths) you find that there’s a piece missing. In other words, when you add all the pieces of Horus’s eye back together, one tiny part is missing. The Egyptians believed that that this missing part was filled in by Thoth’s spit.

So there you have it, Horus has a brand new eye. Now he’s ready to give Seth a beat down. He catches up with his brother and promptly slices off his leg. (Remember, Seth is still in bull form). Horus wants to make sure that the hoof that killed Osiris never harms anyone ever again.

You can still see this severed leg anytime you look into the night sky. Instead of seeing a big dipper, the Egyptians saw this constellation as Seth’s severed leg.

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In the next post, I’ll talk about Horus’s right eye (the Eye of Ra) and Sekhmet (the goddess you don’t want to invite to dinner, unless you have plenty of beer).

Tim Kane

How Does Your Body Move After Death?

There are actions on your body long after death. Many I wasn’t even aware of until after seeing “Danse Macabre”. When this first started, I thought… Uh Oh. This is going to be some artsy piece where someone “interprets” the movements of a corpse. No way. Nearly all the movements the actor/dancer portrays seem genuine and believable. I say nearly, because the rigor on the table leading to the fall is staged, but for a good reason. It leads to an incredible image of the person falling down the drain with her blood.

Here are some stills from the film.

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I had never considered how a person’s feet would slide after being hanged. This is a  detail that is typically lost when we think of a hanged person. Many of the movements in this piece walk the line of morbid and beautiful.

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This, as I said, was the most staged position. The rigor led to the body falling off the table. Yet the scene that followed was astounding.

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We go from a view of the drain to a shot of the body, curled up, falling away. Stunning.

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I had never considered this rather pedestrian movement of the body. Quite literally, it is lowered into a casket. I’d never thought about how the body was placed in there.

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The most beautiful, and surprising movement, came from an interior shot of the casket. As it is being moved around, the body slides. I’d never even contemplated that.

Here is the full video. It’s about 9 minutes.

Tim Kane

The Monsters that Lurk in Illuminated Texts

Imagine spending all day, every day, writing. That was the lot for many Medieval monks. It was grueling work, so we can’t begrudge them a little levity in the margins. The illustrations that adorn illuminated texts go from the silly to the downright bizarre. Here are some of my favorites.

A bird-like demon with a smaller fighting demon and a woman in his basket, from Nürnberger Schembart-Buch, 17th century

A bird-like demon with a two figures fighting in his basket, from Nürnberger Schembart-Buch, 17th century

I included this skeleton from Ars bene moriendi (France, 1470-1480) mostly because I love skeletons.

I included this skeleton from Ars bene moriendi (France, 1470-1480) mostly because I love skeletons.

Bizarre bird-cat from the Luttrell Psalter, Add 42130 f.197r, c.1325-1335

Bizarre bird-dog-tiger from the Luttrell Psalter, Add 42130 f.197r, c.1325-1335

 

A battle between headless combatants from the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, France, 1302-1303

A battle between headless combatants from the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, France, 1302-1303

Here we have what appears to be a demon (or monster) eating a doughnut. This is from Les Grandes Heures du duc de Berry, Paris, 1409.

Here we have what appears to be a demon (or monster) eating a doughnut. This is from Les Grandes Heures du duc de Berry, Paris, 1409.

There seems to be a trend in Medieval illuminations of animals attacking people.

Homicidal rabbit from Gorleston Psalter, England, 14th century

Homicidal rabbit from Gorleston Psalter, England, 14th century

A very angry, axe-weilding, ape. (Source unknown)

A very angry, axe-weilding, ape. (Source unknown)

Rabbits about to kill a man from The Smithfield Decretals, c. 1300

Rabbits about to kill a man from The Smithfield Decretals, c. 1300

We also see many examples of animal warfare.

Dogs battle rabbits from the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, France, 1302-1303

Dogs battle rabbits from the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, France, 1302-1303

Here, foxes siege a castle of monkeys from a 13th-century Bible.

Here, foxes siege a castle of monkeys from a 13th-century Bible.

A dog and a rabbit joust. Source unknown.

A dog and a rabbit joust. Source unknown.

And then there are the snails. Seriously. Many many illustrations show knights battling snails. Scholars are baffled as to the significance.

A knight about to slay an monstrous snail from The Smithsfield Decretals, decretals of Gregory IX, Tolouse, c. 1300. Illuminations were added about forty years later in London.

A knight about to slay an monstrous snail from The Smithsfield Decretals, decretals of Gregory IX, Tolouse, c. 1300. Illuminations were added about forty years later in London.

Another knight (this one riding a dragon) is about to spear two snails from The Queen Mary Psalter, c 1310-1320 via British Library

Another knight (this one riding a dragon) is about to spear two snails from The Queen Mary Psalter, c 1310-1320 via British Library

So the next time you see a snail, pull your sword.

Tim Kane

Creepy Webcomic with Pale White Corpses

I stumbled across the webcomic Out of Skin and was taken by the stark language and stunning, almost greytone, graphics.

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The prose also delivers: “The moon shone clean and white as a skull.”

The story is a period piece, perhaps late nineteenth century. It centers around a woman, who lives alone in the woods, discovering a grave of pale corpses uncovered by the rain. The mystery of what happens drags her down some creepy paths. Namely a tree with flesh for bark and hands for leaves.

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Truly a work of fiction that delves into some deep places of horror. Read and enjoy.

Tim Kane