Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

April 6 2015 2:00 PM

Pay Fealty to Ireland’s King Goat!

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

All hail King Puck, Lord Goat of Killorglin! Staring off into the future as proudly as a goat can, the statue of King Puck in Killorglin, Ireland, is a monument to the country’s oldest festival, the Puck Fair.

During this ancient celebration, a wild male goat (known as a puck) is crowned king of the town for three days before being returned to his normal life in the Irish hills, his royalty all but ignored by his fellow goats. The festival begins each year on Aug. 10, when the captured goat is brought to the town square where he is crowned by the “Queen of Puck,” who is not another goat, but a young girl from the town. His worldly station raised, “King Puck” is then put in a cage on a high scaffold where he may survey his kingdom for the duration of the festival. The bars are allowed to stay open extra-late during the fair, so his majesty generally gets to see some drunkenness. At the end of the three days, the king goat is deposed and led back to into the wilderness.

The origin of the festival is lost to time, but it dates back to at least the 1600s, and is likely much older. Some say that the festival has its origins in pagan symbolism and ritual, but the most popular theory of how the fair began involves Oliver Cromwell and a heroic billy. As the story goes, Cromwell’s English raiders were making their way toward Killorglin when they spooked a herd of goats. One of the beasts hoofed it into the town, and when it arrived, tired and agitated, the citizens of Killorglin realized that something was up. They were able to fortify their town against the oncoming force, and the day was saved. The Puck Fair is said to have been established in honor of that Paul Revere of goats.

The Puck Fair is still celebrated in Killorglin each year, and the statue of King Puck that stands in the city makes sure that in the time between each festival, no one forgets who is really king.

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April 3 2015 7:13 AM

The Secret Address of the Manhattan Project and the Woman Who Kept It Running 

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

When you need to be dropped off at a top-secret research facility that does not exist, what address do you give the driver? For two decades, that address was 109 East Palace in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Located a few blocks from Santa Fe’s city center, the unremarkable building served as the first stop for Richard Feyman, Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, and innumerable other scientists working on the top secret Manhattan Project in nearby Los Alamos. Dozens of scientists, technicians, and other workers would arrive each day to be ferried up to "the Hill" where work on the atomic bomb (and possibly other secret science projects) actually took place.

According to Voices of the Manhattan Project, the primary contact person who greeted arrivals at 109 East Palace was Dorothy Scarritt McKibbin, who became nearly as vital to the Project as any of the scientists. McKibbin would process each of the arrivals and keep the overwhelming secretarial work in order, essentially making sure that the top-secret trains ran on time. She also became a close confidant of Oppenheimer, the man widely considered the father of the atomic bomb. McKibbin ended up staying in Los Alamos after the Project was dissolved and became a bit of a local celebrity, earning the nickname "The First Lady of Los Alamos."  

The building at 109 East Palace ceased being a receiving station for Los Alamos in 1963, but a plaque in the back of the gallery now occupying the space commemorates the building’s history.

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April 2 2015 9:15 AM

Fiddling, Charming, and Grunting: Calling Up the Crawlers at the World Worm Charming Championships

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Because everything has to be a race, the small English village of Willaston hosts a yearly competition known as the World Worm Charming Championships, where competitors come from far and wide to try to convince as many worms as they can to rise to the surface.

Known alternately as fiddling, charming, or grunting, the practice of coaxing earthworms from the wet dirt can be found all over the world, usually as a method of collecting bait for fishing. While the exact method differs from wormer (as they call themselves) to wormer, the basic idea is to create vibrations in the ground, usually by sticking a rod called a stob (like a pitchfork) in the dirt and smacking it with another rod known as a rooping iron. While it may seem a bit odd, the practice is incredibly effective. Some people do it as a profession.

The World Worm Charming Championships began in 1980. A local schoolyard in Willaston was sectioned off, and contestants furiously tapped at the ground to get at some worms. The contest has taken place every year since, consistently growing in popularity, but changing very little. The wormers are given small squares of land to fiddle, grunt, and charm their way to glory by collecting more worms than anyone else. The current world record for worm charming is held by Miss S. Smith and Mr. M. Smith, who won the championship in 2009 with 567 worms.

Should anyone have any moral concerns for the captured crawlers, fear not. The collected worms are released that same day after dark so they are less likely to be eaten by birds.

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March 31 2015 3:54 PM

Germany’s Marriage-Go-Round: This Lurid Fountain Plots the Grim Stages of a Relationship 

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Since its 1981 unveiling, Nuremburg’s controversial bronze fountain, the Ehekarussell (loosely, the Marriage-Merry-Go-Round) has been upsetting people with its sensationally grim representation of the trials of marriage.

The statuary fountain was put in place to cover a subterranean shaft. The artist, Jürgen Weber, went above and beyond in his design, which seems to communicate his less-than-sunny view of married life. The fountain consists of a rough circle of visceral male and female figures that represent various points in a couple’s life. There is the sweet and optimistic dating phase in which the figures seem fairly at peace, but then things take a surreal and dark turn. From there further scenes depict the couple getting old and frail or fat before they both die, becoming gruesome skeletons.

In addition to the questionable message of the piece, many of the figures are nude or beset by animals ranging from mundane (a goat) to monstrous (a giant lizard). Taken together, the fountain is not universally loved.

Despite receiving complaints ever since its birth, the Ehekarussell remains to this day, alternately delighting and horrifying visitors. Much like in many marriages, not everyone is going to agree all the time.

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March 31 2015 9:15 AM

The Festival of Miniature Wishes: Bolivia’s Aspirational Trinket Fair

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Every year on Jan. 24, at the Alasitas festival in La Paz, Bolivia, people come out in droves to pick up little idols that they hope will act as magnets for their wishes.  

At this colorful street fair, you can buy miniatures of every kind, and the tradition holds that if there is something you truly desire in the upcoming year, the way to ensure it comes your way is to buy a tiny version of it at the Alasitas market.

Those wishing for domestic wealth can pick up miniature farm animals, tools, and food products. Maybe a new vehicle is your desire; how about a tiny truck, car, or bus? Just want some money? There are lots of doll-sized banknotes, in Bolivian currency or U.S. dollars. You could wish for travel (miniature passports; plane tickets; suitcases), real estate or furnishings (miniature houses; property deeds; chairs; pots and pans), love or marriage (miniature marriage licenses; bridal dresses; tuxedos), or even a new maid (miniature domestic servant). Your ambition and imagination seem to be the only limit on the things you can find at the festival.

The deity that presides over Alasitas is Ekeko, the smiling god of plenty. He wears a traditional chullo-syle hat, is weighed down with riches, and is usually depicted smoking a cigarette.

The Alasitas market goes on for a month. Most people in La Paz make it a point to go and purchase some wished-for items.

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March 27 2015 9:15 AM

Fake Goats and Spanking Machines: The DeMoulin Museum of Fraternal Initiation Devices

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While today the DeMoulin family is known as the largest maker of band uniforms in America, their museum in Greenville, Illinois is devoted to their company's origins as manufacturers of bizarre initiation devices for a once-booming number of secret societies.

The DeMoulin's odd business of fraternal machinery began in the late 1800s when Ed DeMoulin began working with his men's group, the Modern Woodsmen of America, to begin crafting goats that new members would have to ride as part of their initiation. Ed had previously patented a hilarious "trick camera" that would squirt water at the unknowing subject, so his move into the prank goat industry was a natural fit. The company's popularity soon grew and other fraternal orders such as the Odd Fellows began looking to the "goat factory" for their goofy initiation needs. Soon the DeMoulins were making spanking machines, lung tester gags, and of course, their rocking goats. 

They also began to sell other lodge paraphernalia such as robes, caps, and uniforms. This new revenue stream boomed and soon began to eclipse the hand-crafted pranks. After a factory fire in 1955, the sillier side of the business was shuttered in favor of the more reliable sales of band uniforms and graduation gear.

However the DeMoulins never forgot the strange legacy that initiated their business into being, and today that history is on display at the DeMoulin Museum. Visitors can see an assortment of historic lodge robes, a number of the DeMoulin inventions, and yes, even ride the goat. Membership to any secret lodge is not guaranteed however.

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March 26 2015 9:15 AM

From Taxes to Ax Marks: The Story Behind the World’s Largest Wine Cask

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Bringing new meaning to the term "drinking a ton," Heidelberg Castle's almost comically huge wine cask, known as the Heidelberg Tun, is a massive, one-of-a-kind booze barrel that has been inspiring dreams of world-shattering drunkenness for hundreds of years despite being empty for most of its life.

Built in 1751, the giant wooden barrel was the third such titanic wine holder to be constructed in the area but is the only one to remain. While it may seem as though it was designed to be a novelty, the tun served a much more mundane purpose. In the era when it was created, public taxes were paid in goods, and for an area that excelled in winemaking, that meant a lot of government vino. To hold all the donated drink, giant casks were created and all the tributes were collected into an undoubtedly vile slurry.

Even though the barrel acted as a tax coffer, it was empty most of the time. It still bears hatchet marks from when French soldiers who had taken the castle tried to break into the barrel for some disgusting victory drinks, but gave up when they realized that it was tapped.

Today the barrel continues to draw crowds, who come to see the monumental drunk tank. Things have changed over the years and the tun caters to its tourist visitors more than to its bureaucratic past, with a dance floor built on top and constant wine tastings. Even with the modern changes, the filigreed grandeur still looks like something out of a pirate's fantasy.

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March 25 2015 11:15 AM

Treaties, Trees, and Lies: How a Falsified News Story Saved a Tree

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

There are a number of “treaty oaks” found around America, usually singled out as the location of an important agreement or truce. But the treaty oak in Jacksonville, Florida, is just called that so no one will tear it down.

Believed to be about 250 years old, the many-limbed oak tree located in what is now known as Jesse Ball duPont Park has grown into a lazily wide circumference with thick branches sprouting off at all angles like a massive wooden cephalopod. However, the mighty arbor (which was originally known as just the Giant Oak) was almost the victim of urban sprawl.

As the city of Jacksonville grew in the 1930s, the large amount of land on which the tree sat began looking mighty appealing to developers. Fans of the ancient oak responded with somewhat shady action. Pat Moran, a local reporter, got together with a member of the Jacksonville Garden Club and devised a plan to save the tree involving him fabricating a news story about American Indians signing some kind of accord with white settlers beneath the tree, thereby making the oak a historic monument. The clever scheme worked, and the new Treaty Oak was saved.

Today the huge tree still stands and is kept in good health by regular preservation efforts, which are trying to ensure 400 more years of life for the oak.

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March 24 2015 11:00 AM

Floorboard Manifesto: The Controversial Etchings of Jeannot le Béarnais

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Whether it is naive art, a strong message about mental illness, or the exploitation of a very sick man, the Jeannot Floor enshrined outside Paris’ Saint Anne Hospital Center has not failed to get people talking.  

The public installation consists of three sections from a 160-square-foot wooden floor covered in eerie, etched text from the troubled mind of one Jeannot le Béarnais.

In life, le Béarnais was a farmer with a tragic story. Physically abused by his father, who went on to commit suicide in 1959, le Béarnais slowly unraveled while living in his family home. The first sign of trouble was when he fired some shots into his neighbors’ house on the command of unseen voices. Following this incident, le Béarnais refused to leave home.

After his mother died in 1971, le Béarnais insisted she be buried beneath the stairs, and moved his bed to the dining room to be closer to her. At this point, he began etching messages into the wooden floorboards. His cryptic screeds referenced a vast church conspiracy including Hitler and the popes. The crudely written manifesto was a window into le Béarnais’ schizophrenia. 

The work was discovered after his death in 1993, and the floor was removed from the home to be preserved. For a time it traveled around various art exhibitions as an unvarnished work of accidental art, before finally finding a permanent home outside this hospital in Paris. 

The installation caused nearly instant outrage from opponents who found it to be exploitative or in bad taste, but the floor remains just off the sidewalk to this day. It is a powerful and disturbing look into the face of mental illness.

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Photo by Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

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March 23 2015 11:14 AM

Toys Are Us: The Japanese Village Where Dolls Outnumber People

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

While the tiny Japanese village of Nagoro continues to shrink in the face of aging and industry, its population has managed to stay nearly constant thanks to one local artist who has set about creating life-size doll replicas of the residents as they move away or die.

JAPAN-DOLLS/WIDERIMAGE
Tsukimi Ayano arranges a scarecrow at a bus stop in Nagoro on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

JAPAN-DOLLS/WIDERIMAGE
A general view of the mountain village of Nagoro on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

JAPAN-DOLLS/WIDERIMAGE
A woman pushes a wheelbarrow past scarecrows in Nagoro on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

JAPAN-DOLLS/WIDERIMAGE
A vehicle drives past scarecrows sitting outside a closed-down shop in the village of Nagoro on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

When Japanese artist Tsukimi Ayano moved back to the little village where she was born, she found that many of her neighbors were moving out to bigger cities and the ones who were staying were often not long for the world. Faced with the slow death of the village she so loved, Ayano had an epiphany one day after creating a garden scarecrow (or kakashi) that was meant to look like her late father: Why stop there? Ayano began crafting other life-size dolls modeled on former locals, placing them all around the village in various states of action as their human counterparts would die or move off.

JAPAN-DOLLS/WIDERIMAGE
Tsukimi Ayano arranges a scarecrow, which represents her father, Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

JAPAN-DOLLS/WIDERIMAGE
A scarecrow sits on a tree along a roadside in Nagoro, on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

After continuously crafting these cloth doppelgangers for over a decade, she now has about 350 of the toy citizens. From random utility workers posed in the middle of a road repair to leisurely fishermen forever waiting for their catch on a riverbank to an entire classroom filled with lifeless pupils silently attending to their cotton-faced teachers, the village has become a fascinating (if slightly unsettling) toyland.

Ayano continues to tend to her creations, repairing damaged figures and always crafting new ones. With fewer than 40 breathing humans left in the residential community, Nagoro has become a strange fairyland inspired by loss, progress, and mainly, dolls.

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Ayano steps out of her house in the village of Nagoro, on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

JAPAN-DOLLS/WIDERIMAGE
Ayano sows an ear onto a scarecrow in her home on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

JAPAN-DOLLS/WIDERIMAGE
A scarecrow in Tsukimi Ayano’s house, Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

JAPAN-DOLLS/WIDERIMAGE
Tsukimi Ayano serves tea in her house on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

JAPAN-DOLLS/WIDERIMAGE
Scarecrows survey the sunset on Feb. 23, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

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