Metoposcopy for females

Are you ‘good with the household’? ‘Sensible in marriage’? A ‘little hypocritical’? If you’re not sure, worry not, this 18th-century forehead reader from the Wellcome Collection will be the judge…

Female forehead reader, image courtesy of Wellcome Library

Female forehead reader, image courtesy of Wellcome Library

Among the many unusual items that find their way into the Wellcome Library is this forehead reader (above), printed in 1785 in Nuremberg to accompany a 32-page pamphlet written in German. These small, painted cardboard inserts have survived remarkably well, held within a slipcase containing instructions for revealing character and making predictions. You, too, can now enjoy recreating this parlour game that was partly designed to help those looking for potential partners. At least you will have some fun deciding if the subject is indeed, ‘very stingy’ or ‘a friend of pretty clothes’.

This particular period of European history marked a renewed interest in discerning people’s personalities through their facial features, aka physiognomy. This was largely due the amateur enthusiasm of Johann Casper Lavater (1741-1801), a self-styled connoisseur of faces, who brought a lavish, expensive five part set of books to the attention of the cultural elite. It was popular among those who could afford it, so a certain Dr Silbermann sought to capitalise on Lavater’s success by producing a cut-price, dramatically reduced version.

Lavater’s efforts attempted to give a more ‘scientific’ kudos to the practice of measuring angles and accurately tracing silhouettes of profiles. The idea was to promote self-awareness in order to improve your moral values. In contrast, Silbermann looked back to earlier beliefs in astrology and reintroduced fortune telling into the proceedings. Judge for yourselves if anything is ‘written’ on your forehead.

How to use it: Cut out the female forehead reader template (above - click on the image for full size). Trace the lines of the subject’s forehead with a pen (non-permanent, mind). Place the reader on the forehead, so the pen lines appear through the cutout sections. Mark the numbers where the lines appear, then look up the numbers in the key (below) to reveal the characteristics.

Reader key:

Words: Danny Rees, Wellcome Library

Stay tuned for Metoposcopy for Males, coming soon…

The Toynbee Tiles

Over the last 30 years, cryptic messages have been found embedded into the tarmac of roads across America. No one knows who made them or what the messages mean.

Images courtesy of Kendall Whitehouse

Images courtesy of Kendall Whitehouse

In the late 1980s, a cryptic message from an unknown creator began to appear in the streets of Philadelphia. ‘TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOViE `2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER’ was embedded into roads, pavements and even the middle of busy highways. The Toynbee Tiles, or TTT as they soon became known, were linoleum floor panels, into which words had been carved with a knife and filled with different colours. Each tile was secured into the ground using layers of tar paper which, once driven over by a passing car, would effectively glue them in place. Over time, the layer of paper at the top would be worn away by traffic and weather to reveal a Toynbee Tile. It was an ingenious way of getting a message across – whatever that baffling message actually was. Was it a joke, haiku, cryptic code or just meaningless nonsense?

2001 A Space Odyssey, based on a book by Arthur C.Clarke, is an extraordinary and ambitious film, the meaning of which has drawn endless speculation. Monkeys? Obelisks? Why does Mr Rigsby from Rising Damp turn up? And what about the ending in which astronaut Bowman – part of a team on a trip to Jupiter – appears to enter another dimension where he encounters himself as a giant baby? For TTT fanatics, this scene could easily be interpreted as ‘resurrect dead on planet Jupiter’.

Images courtesy of Kendall Whitehouse

Images courtesy of Kendall Whitehouse

As for the name Toynbee, many believe it to be a reference to the English historian, Albert Toynbee. Others connect it with a short story by American author Ray Bradbury, The Toynbee Convector, about the future survival of humanity. To add to the confusion, Arnold Toynbee is also the name of a spaceship in another Arthur C. Clarke story, Jupiter V.

Over the next three decades, Toynbee Tiles continued to appear in roads all over the US from New York, Boston, Baltimore, Kansas and Chicago to Washington. To date, over 600 Toynbee Tiles have been spotted and photographed, many more lost or destroyed. Few remain in their locations for long before the authorities see fit to remove them. Whether the tiles were the work of one person or a legion, here was an extraordinary act of monomania made all the more amazing by the fact that after 30 years, not a single person had ever reported seeing their creator at work.

Words: David Bramwell

For more curious tales pick up a copy of our book The Mysterium: Unexplained and extraordinary stories for a post-Nessie generation (Chambers, 2017)

Ballast flora

A study of the plants and trees around our ports can tell us many things about the history of colonialism, commerce and migration

Illustration: Joe Latham

Illustration: Joe Latham

Cargo ships have to weigh a certain amount in order to sail well. When travelling without goods, this weight is attained by the use of ballast – any heavy material loaded into the bottom of the hull. From the late 17th century to the early 1900s, that weight was made up from waste materials gathered near port. This ‘dirt’ would be dumped at the boat’s destination and some of the seeds, plants and whole trees it contained would germinate. Trade routes can thus be determined through surveys of the non-native plants around ports - so called ‘ballast flora’.

Artist Maria Thereza Alves, creator of Bristol’s Ballast Seed Garden writes how the study of these plants, ‘reveals patterns, temporalities and instruments of colonialism, commerce and migration going back many centuries’.

In 2017, a team at Rutgers University concluded that about 80 of the species identified in the first formal surveys of the ballast heaps found in late-19th century American port cities were still present in the country’s flora today. These survivors have clearly made lives for themselves in the ‘nation of immigrants’, giving a very literal meaning to the Statue of Liberty’s welcome to ‘the wretched refuse of your teeming shore’.

Words: Guy Lochhead

This article originally featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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Becalmed: changing terrors of the Sargasso Sea

Bring to mind ocean journeys, and you might well imagine high seas, rogue waves, ships dashed on rocks – tales of human resilience pitted against a wild and omnipotent ocean. But what of places where the elements relent, leaving boats to flounder in a windless sea?

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There is one such place renowned for its disquieting calms – the Sargasso Sea, a shoreless oval of water in the North Atlantic measuring some 2,000 by 700 miles. Bounded by ocean currents on all sides, the water rotates clockwise in an ocean gyre, slowly revolving like the eye of a hurricane. The area has struck terror into the minds of sailors for centuries. It was once known as the Horse Latitudes, after becalmed Spanish ships were forced to throw their horses overboard to save drinking water. Tales of ghost ships abound, their skeleton crews left to starve or go insane while their sails hung listlessly.

Despite its fearsome reputation, this singular place plays a vital role in the wider North Atlantic ecosystem, renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle calling the Sargasso Sea ‘the golden rain forest of the ocean’. A knotted mass of free-floating sargassum seaweed covers the surface, picked over by crabs, shrimp and curious fish. Young sea turtles shelter in the thick mat of vegetation, and most of the world’s freshwater eels are spawned here.

Sadly, these revolving ocean currents also pull in vast amounts of ocean plastics, which knot together with the sargassum to form so-called windrows: long rafts of free-floating debris. Even more disturbing, below the surface a fog of microplastics is steadily making its way into the marine food chain. The most terrifying ocean journey of all is one of our own making.

The Smog of the Sea chronicles a one-week journey through the remote waters of the Sargasso Sea;

The strange world of bee etiquette

Treat these complex insects with the respect they require and they will reward you with an abundance of honey. At least, that’s what the superstitions would have you believe…

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

When an otherwise amenable honey bee harpoons you before tumbling to the earth in her death throes, it’s commonly accepted that you must have done something to deserve it. Wasps are vindictive sods, horseflies are stealthy vampires, and hornets are psychopaths jacked up on insect steroids, but most of us have a vague notion that bees are honourable little souls who don’t sting unless offended somehow.

Delve into British and international folk culture, and you soon realise there are an awful lot of ways to offend a bee. My well-thumbed The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland (Steve Roud, 2003) contains five pages on the subject, opening with the observation that “the key characteristic of bees [...] is that they are very sensitive and censorious creatures. ” They object to bad manners and domestic discord, they like to be introduced to visitors, and there are formal protocols in place for major events, such as weddings and funerals.

If it seems odd to behave so deferentially towards such miniscule creatures, consider that bees have commanded respect for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians believed bees were formed from the tears of Ra, while on Minoan Crete and in Phrygia they were associated with the great mother goddess. Greek philosophers admired their industry, and Virgil waxed lyrical about their moral character in The Georgics, noting that “beneath the shelter of majestic laws they live”. Germanic warriors likened them to tiny Valkyries who would bring them luck in battle, while Arabic writers in the 11th and 12th centuries valued their fastidious and loyal nature.

Bee respectful

Rulers throughout the ages have often felt kinship with the regal bee, and in some Norse, Celtic and Saxon cultures, honey or mead was considered valuable enough to be presented as royal tribute. The 5th-century Frankish king Childeric I was buried in a ceremonial cloak studded with 300 golden bees, and Napoleon adopted the same motif for his coronation robe. The 17th-century English apiarist William Butler sawbee society as a model for the perfect ‘Amazonian’ commonwealth, gushing that “they work for all, they watch for all, they fight for all [...] and all this under the government of one Monarch. ”

Humans have kept bees for millennia, and perhaps the abundance of bee-related etiquette is an attempt to understand the seemingly irrational intricacies of insect behaviour in our own terms. If your bees abandon their hive, it’s not really because you forgot to introduce a house guest. If they sting you, it’s not retaliation for a careless obscenity, and if they die off inexplicably, they haven’t done it out of spite because you didn’t bring them a bit of your communion wafer one Sunday. Bees swarm, sting or perish based on complicated environmental and internal factors that make little sense to all but the most knowledgeable entomologists. Much easier to think of a bee as a sort of kamikaze Jiminy Cricket, who will lay down her life without hesitation just to teach you a thing or two about good conduct.

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Putting hives in mourning

One of the most complicated portions of beehive etiquette concerns inheriting a colony of bees. Bees must be officially informed of the death of their previous owner, and must be formally put in mourning. Often the new owners are required to make a speech introducing themselves, and to present the bees with offerings of food. Flaunt these rules, and the bees are apt to leave the hives and follow their former master into the afterlife.

Writing in the 1890s, a country parson called J. C. Atkinson recounted one such episode from his boyhood in Essex, when the local rector died and the whole family trooped out to the beehives with “weird solemnity”. Each hive was bound with a strip of black ribbon, then tapped three times with the house key and informed that the master was dead. This sort of practice was once widespread, both in the UK and further afield. France and Switzerland had parallel traditions, and there was a rather fine variant from Guernsey, where it was an encouraging sign if the bees answered with a buzz when you knocked on the hive.

Ever-sensitive to change, bees also demanded certain formalities on wedding days. In Lancashire,
a simple marriage announcement to the bees would suffice, while in Brittany, newlyweds had to festoon the hives with red ribbon. In some areas of Croatia, meanwhile, a bride’s first job on entering her new home was to dab honey on the door lintels as a gesture of friendliness towards her new insect comrades.

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Sacred rituals

A 13th-century Welsh legal document called the Gwentian Code claims grandly that “The origin of bees is from Paradise and because of the sin of man they came thence, and God conferred His grace on them”.

As you might expect for creatures straight out of Eden, bees are especially hot on matters of religious observance, and they will soon abandon an owner who isn’t devout enough. Various British and European traditions over the years advised giving the bees a consecrated communion wafer every now and again, and more imaginative beekeepers would sometimes recount opening up the hive to find their bees reverently building ornate wax altars on which to place the sacred host.

Significant occasions in the church calendar often merited more elaborate offerings. In some parts of Germany, bees were provided with a special meal on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, and were treated to a sprinkling of holy water and a waft of incense on Epiphany and Christmas Eve. In northern England, the bees seem to have participated more exuberantly during the festive season. As early as 1794, the lawyer and historian William Hutchinson recorded that Cumbrian bees in Bootle were “heard to sing” on Christmas Eve, while William Henderson’s Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (1879) mentions Northumbrian bees assembling promptly at midnight to “hum a Christmas hymn”.

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Bad behaviour

“It is a very general belief,” writes Hilda Ransome in The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore (1937), “that you must not swear at bees. They will either die or sting those who use bad language”.

Bees expect the highest levels of conduct from their owners. They will not stay in a quarrelsome home, nor will they tolerate avarice or promiscuity, often going on strike in protest. In his early beekeeping volume, The Feminine Monarchie (1609), Charles Butler advises that “thou must not be unchaste and uncleanly; for inpuritie and sluttishness [...] they utterly abhor”. Bees are especially attuned to ‘inpuritie’, and there are stories of canny country girls walking their boyfriends past the beehives, knowing that bees will attack a cheater.

Bees value scrupulous fairness and generosity in their owners. They appreciate morsels from your table on special occasions, and there’s an old British custom that when you harvest the honey from your hive, you’re supposed to give some to your neighbours, since the bees have undoubtedly plundered nectar from their flowers.

Even many modern apiarists are convinced that bees pick up on the characteristics of their human companions. My mother boasts about how tidy her honey bees keep their hive, while an acquaintance attributes his ‘chilled out’ bees to his own even temper. To my delight, I was once informed at a village fair that bees from my native Yorkshire are hardier and more industrious than the slothful Italian bees imported by some rookie beekeepers.

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Acquiring bees

Another of the most common bee superstitions is that they don’t like to be bought or sold like domestic animals. In some parts of the UK you can trade bees for gold or barter them for chickens or whatever, but buying a colony for actual money is a big no-no. One Victorian source from the Dartmoor area suggests half a sack of wheat as a reasonable trade, urging that “bees must not be bought, [for] they would thrive as ill as if they were stolen. ” It goes without saying, of course, that no good can come of stealing bees, and they will usually express their outrage by dying en masse.

The best way to acquire bees is to inherit them, or even better, to have a swarm deliberately decide to take up residence with you. The sight of a swarm without a home has always been an exciting prospect for a beekeeper, and there are all kinds of elaborate charms for encouraging passing clouds of bees to stay. In Roman times, people attempted to attract itinerant swarms with bells and tiny cymbals, believing that they found the sound appealing. Somehow, this refined practice evolved into the rather rowdier British custom of ‘tanging’ bees, in which villagers chased a swarm down the street banging pots and pans. It’s not clear whether this was to announce the presence of the swarm, to attract it, or to lay claim to it, but whatever the case, it must have been fun.

Words: Joly Braime

This article originally featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now

Issue 8
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