All Hail the Guizer Jarl! The Viking Madness of Up Helly Aa.
Each year, about a month after Christmas, hundreds of torch-bearers in an assortment of silly costumes march through the streets of Lerwick in Scotland’s Shetland Islands to set fire to a Viking longboat. Welcome to the Up Helly Aa.
While the specifics of the festival have evolved over the decades, the essential format has remained the same. Participants, known as “guizers,” get together to form dozens of squads, each with their own costuming theme. As night falls on the day of the festival, each man is outfitted with a blazing torch, and the whole procession (which can reach up to 1,000 strong) marches through the streets in a fiery parade. Led by the officially appointed “Guizer Jarl,” the festive army then surrounds a full-size replica of a Viking longboat, and tosses all of their torches into it, setting the ship ablaze.
The themes of the squads range from men in dresses to questionable racial stereotypes to Star Wars Stormtroopers, but the guizers of the Jarl’s squad are always dressed like Vikings. Being named Jarl and being in his squad is a local honor, and costume preparations for those in the lead group begin over a year before their appointed Up Helly Aa.
Up Helly Aa is a relatively modern celebration that seems to have its origins in the simple desire to get nuts and have a wild party. The official website of the celebration dates the start of the tradition back to 1880, when some organized revelers instituted a series of customs onto a messy yuletide celebration that rowdy soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars had begun years earlier.
Even with all of the ritual and burning stuff, the revelers in an Up Helly Aa still find time to get good and rowdy, filling public halls all over the city as the squads perform entertaining little acts. If only all historic festivals seemed like such a good party.
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The World’s Largest Book Is a Collection of More Than 700 Stone Tablets
Call it the "anti-Kindle," call it the "world's largest book," or call it "really hard to read," there is no disputing that the expansive tome etched on over 700 stone slabs surrounding Myanmar's glittering Kuthodaw Pagoda forms a volume that would test even the most ardent book lover.
The Kuthodaw Pagoda was built 1857 by King Mindon Min. The gorgeous temple building is completely gilded on the exterior, giving it the look of a solid-gold spectacle. However, the true spectacle lies within the stark white stupas that surround its base. Beneath the pinnacled roofs of the squat little structures are 730 marble tablets (729 contain body of the text, while the 730th tablet describes their creation) covered on both sides with dense script. Taken all together, these comprise the entirety of Theravāda Buddhism's religious canon, its tipitaka (a phrase meaning "three baskets," which is a reference to the baskets in which the original Buddhist teachings were held). The thick stone tablets each stand over five feet tall and five inches thick.
When the tablets were unveiled in 1868, each line of writing had been filled with golden ink and the stones were decorated with precious stones including rubies and diamonds. Unfortunately, after the British invaded in the mid-1880s, the troops looted the temple site, stripping the slabs of their gold ink and gems.
Today the sprawling book still stands, and the writing has been refilled with simple black ink. While the opulent glory may have disappeared, the messages of the writings themselves live on for future generations. It might not be light reading, but it is assuredly enlightening.
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The Lovecraftian Thrones of Puerto Vallarta’s Rotonda Del Mar
Puerto Vallarta's bustling, seaside malecon (boardwalk) is a sunny tourist walk covered in palm trees and shops. But hiding out in the open, along this otherwise idyllic stretch of Mexican beachfront, is a circle of surreal bronze statues that look like some hellish union of chair and nightmare.
Known by the innocuous moniker La Rotonda del Mar or The Rotunda by the Sea, the surprisingly sinister installation is the work of Guadalajaran sculptor Alejandro Colunga. The eight bronze thrones, unveiled at the end of 1996, are positioned at irregular intervals around a stone circle, with the sea lapping right up to the edge. The tall, amorphous chairs are topped with impressionistic sea creatures, like an octopus and a seahorse, that seem to be parts of the thrones themselves. Many of the seats are also supported by legs that end in claws or organic "feet," making them seem like strange, eldritch monuments. They seem to have been designed with whimsy in mind, but the dark, Lovecraftian influences can't help but shine through.
The artist created the chairs to be interacted with, and visitors are invited to sit in them. Most of them have patches where the bronze has been rubbed to a golden sheen from all the attention.
Even in the warm Mexican sun, The Rotunda by the Sea sits silently as though it's waiting for the robed priests of an arcane secret order to take their places in the circle. Each sitting in their appointed throne, uttering a word of power that sounds like the cold of space, waking a sleeping Old God from beneath the waves, unleashing madness on the vacationers sipping their margs on the malecon. Cthulhu fhtagn.
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Behold Japan’s Tower of the Sun
During Japan’s Expo ’70 the otherworldly Tower of the Sun jutted out of the top of the giant tent surrounding it. Now, after decades of neglect, the multifaceted, wide-winged art building has been refurbished and is finally ready to once again open its doors and allow visitors into its mysterious guts.
Finished in 1970, the 230-foot-tall tower is not, in fact, a terrifying beast from beyond time and space, but the work of artist Tarō Okamoto. The designer built the structure to represent the past, present, and future in one fluid construction, so the tower features three distinct faces. The golden face at the top represents the future and features light-up eyes. The segmented face jutting out of the tower’s “chest” represents the present, while the rather ominous face on the back of the tower is a sign of the past. In addition to the faces, the tower also features two 80-foot-long wings.
The spacious interior of the tower has, on occasion, been even more strange. During Expo ’70 the wide space inside featured a tall sculpture known as the Tree of Life, which reached up into the heights of the structure. Smaller sculptures were hung from the branches, creating a sort of psychedelic Christmas tree.
Once the World’s Fair it was created for ended, the Tower of the Sun was locked up and left to the elements. The lights in its eyes died, and the entire site began to fall apart. In recent years, restoration of the tower has brought the site back to life. New lights were installed, the interior Tree of Life was dusted off, and limited groups of people were finally allowed back inside.
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The Spy Who Billed Me
In 1961, when a KGB counterintelligence officer showed up at a CIA station in Helsinki, Jeanne Vertefeuille held the keys to the office safe. "Responsibility for office funds was part of my normal administrative duties," the former CIA officer writes in Circle of Treason, the book she co-authored in 2013, "and therefore I could get into the strongbox where we kept our money."
The intelligence officer and his family needed to get out of the country, fast, and they needed money for the plane tickets and travel expenses. "I immediately drove to the office, opened the strongbox, pulled out wads of currency without counting, and then proceeded as fast as I could to the airport," Vertefeuille writes. She sped to the airport, where she met the defecting officer and the CIA station chief, handed them the money, and sent them on their way to the United States.
Her takeaway, as a bureaucrat? "Needless to say," she writes, "my accountings did not balance that month."
Like every other business, clandestine operations have a budget and like every federal agency, that budget is examined by scores of government workers. But how do expenses work if you're a spy, doing secret work?
Much like other kinds of work, it turns out, with a few key differences. The nature of the business might mean that unexpected expenses come up and not all can be documented with receipts. But the people holding the purse strings back in the seat of government do want to know what the tax dollars they've committed are being spent on.
"We were very conscious of being accountable. These were taxpayer funds. They weren't to be spent frivolously," says Peter Earnest, a former CIA operations officer who's now the executive director of the International Spy Museum. "And that was enforced by a pretty bureaucratic accounting process."
It might be incongruous to think of spies having to account for expenses, like any old suit on a business trip, but in reality, people working for intelligence services do have to keep track of the money they're spending, file expense reports, and even hound their company (the Company, in this case) to reimburse them. "They're the same as the reports any businessman would submit after meeting a client," says Chris Lynch, former FBI and CIA counterintelligence officer and author of The C.I Desk. "Meals, miles, parking, small gifts, other expenses, receipts if they had them, some kind of 'certification' if they didn’t."
Information about expense reports for intelligence operations is somewhat hard to come by, both because it's mundane and potentially revealing. Spy memoirs don't spend a lot of time recalling the hours spent on filling out paperwork, but, on the other hand, boring paperwork, if it included line-by-line accountings of expenses, could show how an officer operates—and how lavishly he or she spends. The expenses for setting up an operation might include sourcing equipment, creating supply caches, arranging safe houses, and training people; one court case in Italy revealed records of U.S. intelligence officers staying at luxury hotels and spending as much as $500 a day eating out.
But some of the most intriguing expenses that intelligence operations rack up come from the requests of agents—the well-placed people that intelligence officers recruit to secretly pass along valuable information. Some agents simply want to be paid for their efforts. But some have much more unusual requests.
One of the main tasks of a case officer out in the field is to identify people who might be valuable assets, gain their trust, and convince them to clandestinely collect and share information. Often, this work starts with socializing. Cost might include: booze, food, and other enticements (pornography, in some places).
In his memoir, A Spy for All Seasons, Duane Clarridge, a former CIA officer who led the Latin American and European divisions, walks through the recruitment of a source. Clarridge identifies a possible agent, a man he calls Adamski. Since he's having trouble meeting up with Adamski, Clarridge starts by taking a mutual acquaintance for lunch and asking for help connecting. Clarridge doesn't pay this mutual friend—"I knew that any mention of compensation would be offensive to him," he writes—but he does give him small gifts. While trying to stage "accidental" meetings with Adamski, Clarridge rents a fishing boat, travels to a nearby tourist town, buys a gift (a piece of embroidery) for Adamski's wife, and helps him procure an abortion drug. Eventually, all these efforts led to Adamski agreeing to become an agent.
Recruiting agents, for Clarridge, was "addicting," he writes. But not all case officers relish this process. "As a general rule, case officers do not spend enough on cultivating agent candidates or liaison officials," Joseph Wippl, a former case officer who now teaches at Boston University, says. And, according to Clarridge, officers spending might depend, in part, on what they get out of it: "When case officers can't afford to go to lunch or dinner on their own because it's too expensive, they know they can still go out for a nice meal on Uncle Sam, since part of the business of developing somebody is taking him out for dinner," he writes. As bureau chief in Rome, Clarridge saw developmental activity go up when the dollar was weak—and drop again when the currency rallied.
Once an officer has recruited an agent, the question of compensation comes up. Agents have all sorts of motivations: sometimes they simply want or need money. But sometimes they have more complicated requests. In Clarridge's story, Adamski asks for ancient Greek coins, for a collection (although, as time passes, it becomes clearer that he's likely selling them off as a source of income). In other memoirs, CIA employees remember agents asking for wristwatches, crystal glassware, and pearls. Sometimes agents request items that are hard to come by where they live—sports equipment, for instance, from fishhooks, wading boots, and hand warmers to shotguns and ammunition. Agents might ask for toys for their kids, books, the latest gadgets, or prescriptions to hard-to-find medications. One agent asked for large quantities of ballpoint pens, which he was supposed to procure for his Soviet government office: he essentially just outsourced the task to the CIA.
These expenses had to be accounted for, too—even if they were simply cash payments.
"When I gave [an agent] their monthly stipend or whatever it was, they would sign for it," using a previously agreed upon name, says Earnest, the Spy Museum director. "I would have to submit that."
Besides this sort of work with agents, intelligence agencies like the CIA also run missions, and the expenses for those are bigger and less commonly seen on your average travel expense report. In his memoir, former CIA director William Colby describes the expenses of trying to influence, relatively early in the CIA's history, the outcome of an Italian election: The CIA handed over money to local political groups to publish propaganda, organizes rallies, and run voter registration campaigns. This added up. "Considering the amounts of money we were spending—at least relative to the CIA budget—it is not surprising that there was an almost constant demand by Washington for accountings on what we were accomplishing," he wrote. "There were many at headquarters who were suspicious that all we were doing was handing out our money in a free-wheeling happy-go-lucky way." And some operations, of course, involve even more serious expenditures, on, for instance, guns, ammunitions, and other military resources.
All these expenditures could be subject to internal auditing, and there is oversight. One director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner, wrote that he defined certain kinds of actions that to be cleared with him: "payments to agents when they exceed certain dollar amounts; recruitments of foreign agents at Cabinet level or above; dispensing any lethal material…any operation where the risks were high and exposure could seriously embarrass the United States."
And, as Colby found, there wasn't much tolerance in Washington for flexible budgeting. "Once," he wrote, "I had been indiscreet enough to reply to a question about an item in a Southeast Asia appropriation that it was a 'slush fund' to meet future needs…the fund was eliminated from my budget by the examiner."
Of course, not all intelligence agencies necessarily operate the same way. Harvey Klehr, an Emory history professor who's studied the KGB, says that "in the 1930s and 1940s, there are occasional requests for more money—one KGB officer in LA asked for permission to buy a car, since no one in LA walked—but no indications that anyone filled out an expense report." The Comintern headquarters did want its employees to account for how their funds were spent, though. And Klehr says, when the KGB's predecessor agency found out it had been paying money to made up informants, it started requiring that more than one intelligence officer work with each source.
But, even more than people working in less sensitive operations, intelligence officers have a reason to responsibly report their expenses. "Another thing to keep in mind is: people in the clandestine service are periodically polygraphed," says Earnest. "And there are questions on there designed to uncover the fact that you had misused funds. That’s something the average citizen doesn’t go through."
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The Meteorite That Landed on a Woman in Alabama
Most space debris simply burns up in the atmosphere long before it can ever make earthfall (a meteor). Every so often a lucky meteorite makes it through the fire, but only a few times in recorded history has such a missile ever hit a human being.
The Hodges Meteorite is not remarkable for its size or shape, but after careening through an Alabama woman’s house and hitting her while she napped, it went down in history. At 2 in the afternoon on Nov. 30, 1954, Ann Hodges had just settled into a nap on her couch when a meteorite, which would come to be known as Sylacauga (fallen meteorites are usually named after where they land), rocketed through the roof. The space bullet bounced off the massive radio cabinet and slammed right into Hodges’ side like something off of Astronomy’s Funniest Home Videos. Amazingly, Hodges was only bruised, but the real violence was yet to come.
As it turns out, meteorites are pretty much space gold, and ownership of the mineral came into question almost immediately. Hodges had been renting her home from the owner, who felt that since the meteorite had crashed through his roof, it was legally his. Understandably, Hodges felt differently, and a heated legal battle ensued. In the end, Hodges won the day—and the meteorite—but as the sensational story had earned her a great deal of unwanted fame, she donated the rock to the Alabama Museum of Natural History.
Now known popularly as the Hodges Meteorite, the extraterrestrial dive bomber is still on display in the museum.
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Italy’s Mouth of Truth
Long before the modern lie detector and its harmlessly jittering graphs and wires were invented, the untruthful faced a much more severe fate between the jaws of the Bocca della Verità, or Mouth of Truth (or Mouth of Fate), an ancient carving that is said to bite the hands off of liars.
While no one is exactly sure when or why the frieze was created, there are a number of theories. Dating back to about the first century A.D., the Mouth of Truth is a tall stone disc carved with a humanoid face that has holes for eyes and a gaping mouth. The original purpose of the large medallion has been theorized as everything from a ceremonial well cover, to a piece of fountain decoration, to a manhole cover. The face has been said to represent a pagan god, although exactly which one is up for debate, with scholars guessing at everyone from forest god Faunus to sea god Oceanus to a local river god.
While the origin is up for debate, the unifying legend surrounding the stone carving is that if one were to stick his or her hand inside the disc’s mouth and tell a lie, the rocky maw would bite the offending hand off. This belief seems to have originated during the Middle Ages when the disc was supposedly used during trials. According to legend, the accused put his or her hand in the slot, and, if found to be untruthful, a hidden axman would lop off the appendage. While this use seems to be apocryphal, the superstition persists to this day.
The Mouth of Truth, which rests outside the doors of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church, has been used as a whimsical lie detector in a number of movies and video games, most famously in the 1953 romance Roman Holiday, in which the carving was a major plot device.
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The War On Pinball
On Obscura Day, this Saturday, May 30, join us for a private tour and play session at the Pacific Pinball Museum, which has a massive collection of vintage pinball machines.
But in the 1940s and for decades after, the pinging, zinging, flicking, bumping game of pinball was considered by many to be both a moral and economic stain on America’s proud cultural quilt.
To get the story of the war on pinball, we spoke with Michael Schiess, executive director of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California, who has been collecting and repairing pinball machines, both modern and vintage, since 2001.
Descended from a table game known as Bagatelle, the first pinball machine was patented in 1871, after a plunger mechanism that rocketed the ball into the playing field was added to the game. By the 1930s, pinball machines were ubiquitous amusements in bars and taverns around the country, and were seen as “trade stimulators,” a boon to the bleak economy of the Great Depression.
Before the invention of flippers, which were not introduced until 1947, the launched ball would simply bounce off pins into whichever random hole it found on the field. Despite the random, uncontrollable nature of the game, people still placed wagers on the outcome of these games, and pinball soon gained a reputation as a gambling machine that catered to lowlifes. This reputation was bolstered by the fact that most of the machines came from Chicago, then a hub of mob activity, and the cash-based machines were easy targets for criminals.
This gamified source of ill-gotten gain soon attracted the attention of crusading do-gooders, who set out to put a stop to the pinball epidemic, eventually leading to the game being banned in a number of cities, most notably New York. Chief among the opponents of pinball was then-Mayor of New York City Fiorella LaGuardia, who succeeded in passing a citywide ban on the machines in 1942 with the help of some nationalistic furor.
“By 1942 [LaGuardia] had been trying to ban pinball and a lot of illegal activities in New York. He was trying to clean up New York, so I think he was using anything he could get his hands on,” Schiess explains.
“He got most of his ammo when Pearl Harbor was bombed. They needed materials and resources for the war effort, and pinball of course used wood, wire, metal, glass, all these resources that were required for the war. Once he had that ammunition, he was able to enact a law to make [pinball] illegal.”
With LaGuardia leading the charge to have the game banned and eliminated, places like Oakland, California, and Chicago, where most of the machines were manufactured, followed suit and created laws banning or limiting the use of pinball machines. Even with the laws in place, the game was never completely eliminated. The new legal restrictions on the game quickly quashed the use of the machines as gambling tools, with many of the games being set up so that you could not “win” per se, but instead competed for the chance at an extra game.
Even as its connection to gambling dissipated in the 1950s, the nationwide attitude towards pinball retained the finger-wagging tenor of a moral crusade. Newspaper articles were written and advertisements were created that denounced pinball as “taking lunch money from our kids,” as Schiess puts it. The arguments sounded remarkably similar to many of the alarmist arguments against video games that continue to be espoused even today.
As the years passed, pinball machines continued to pop up around the country in various forms as the furor against them lessened and the laws and bans became more lax. Yet it was not until 1976 that the New York pinball ban was actually lifted.
“The way I understand it, some of the pinball manufacturers were lobbying to get the ban lifted, because people were playing pinball in New York,” says Schiess.
The canny lobbyists brought an actual pinball machine into a city council meeting, where pinball historian Roger Sharpe gave a demonstration of how it worked:
"The ban was lifted when Roger Sharpe went in and did a Babe Ruth number where he called his shot, and then he launched his ball. This was after several attempts to prove to them that he could actually beat the machine,” Schiess explains. “But they weren’t buying it until he made that shot. As soon as he made it, they took a vote and the ban was lifted. It was a big deal.”
With a single, successfully landed flipper shot (and several backup pinball machines on standby in case the main one malfunctioned), Sharpe proved to the city council, and the nation at large, that pinball was in fact a game of skill and not just a tool of iniquity for hoodlums and rock-and-rollers. After New York City lifted its official prohibition on the game, many other cities followed suit, and pinball quickly returned to prominence.
Pinball machines grew ever more complex in the decades that followed, with media-licensed machines becoming the norm, adding more and more digital bells and whistles in a losing race to compete with the rise of video games. Yet remnants of pinball’s days as the bad boy of amusements still remain. As Schiess tells it, pinball was still banned in Oakland right up until 2014. The law prohibiting it was rediscovered and abolished during research regarding an online gambling law.
By the late 2000s, pinball had become a beloved but increasingly rare amusement, with all but one of the major manufacturers (Stern being the remaining company) having gone out of business. The days when pinball was a symbol of gangsters and greasers were finished, only to be replaced by a warm nostalgia for the jangling tangibility of the cacophonous game.
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The World Bog Snorkeling Championship
The yearly World Bog Snorkeling Championship takes place in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells and consists of what it sounds like: entrants stroking through a swimming lane created out of a stinking local bog.
Unsurprisingly, the traditional sport is said to have been created as part of a bar bet in 1976. The small town sport has now grown into a yearly contest that sees hundreds of daring swimmers from around the world flock to Llanwrtyd Wells, all trying to break the speed record for traversing the jet-black waters.
During the championship, which takes place each August, competitors must complete two laps of a 180-foot lane carved into the Waen Rhydd peat bog, aided by nothing but flippers and a snorkel. A wetsuit is encouraged but not required. Many contestants arrive in wild costumes, and a prize is given for the best one. But the big prize is the world speed record, which is routinely broken during the event. It is currently held by Surrey’s Kirsty Johnson, who completed the two circuits in one minute and 22.56 seconds.
The odd honors aside, the event is a platform to raise awareness of the environmental importance of peat bogs, which harbor a multitude of wildlife. A noble goal, but one that might be easy to miss in the fervor to cross the gross finish line before anyone else.
For more on the World Bog Snorkeling Championships, check Atlas Obscura!
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The Twisted Remains of America’s Deadliest Avalanche
In the wilderness of Washington’s Tye River Valley, near Stevens Pass, are twisted pieces of rusting metal slowly being overtaken by the surrounding foliage. These bits of scrap are the final remnants of the Wellington Avalanche of 1910, the deadliest disaster of its kind in American history.
On Feb. 28, 1910, the small rail station in what was then called Wellington, Washington, was on lockdown after almost a fortnight of blizzard conditions. The area was buried in an impassable layer of snow. Despite the best efforts of the depot workers, two trains—one a passenger train called the Spokane Express, the other a mail carrier—were snowed in place for six days at the base of Windy Mountain. With telegraph lines downed by the storm, all communication to the small town and station had been cut off.
A number of passengers decided to escape the mountain on foot, but many more remained, waiting for the weather to give them a break that would sadly not come in time. As February turned to March, the heavy snows turned to a rainy, windy storm, giving some degree of hope to the passengers waiting to escape their mountainous purgatory. However, in the wee hours of March 1, 1910, lightning struck the mountainside and triggered a massive avalanche that sent a towering wave of snow thundering down toward the depot.
The cascade of "white death" obliterated the station and much of the small community of Wellington. The waiting train cars rolled over 150 feet down into the Tye River Valley, where the wreckage became buried in dozens of feet of snow. In the final accounting, 96 souls were lost in the disaster, including passengers and train workers, making it the deadliest avalanche in the country’s history. None of the people who walked off the mountain is reported to have perished.
After the tragedy, the community of Wellington was renamed Tye to distance it from the deaths, but even this name change could not save the small town, which eventually dissolved.
Today hikers on the Iron Goat Trail can still find bits of the warped wreckage that were not carried off the mountain, crumbling under the overgrowth as a reminder of nature’s terrible wrath.
More wonders to explore:
- “Stompie” the abandoned tank sitting on London’s Mandela Way was installed as a symbolic middle finger
- No one is exactly sure why more than a hundred lakes have formed amongst the tallest sand dunes on Earth
- The greatest amusement park in the world is wall-to-wall farting dogs, puking rats, and cows with exposed breasts for the whole family