Erdstalls Tunnels: Central Europe’s last great mystery

Across Europe, there are hundreds of underground tunnels that, apparently, lead to nowhere and about which any historic records have ever been found. They are mostly located in the southern German state of Bavaria and the nearby Austria, where they are known by the German name “Erdstall”, which literally means “place under the earth”. Locally, they are also called by various names such as “Schrazelloch”, or “goblin hole”, but also “Alraunenhöhle”, meaning “mandrake cave”, which reflects the various theories and legends associated with the mysterious tunnels. Some believed that they…

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Lammas: welcoming the harvest

We are in the middle of the dog days of summer, when the gardens are full of beautiful flowers, the fields are full of grain, and the harvest is approaching. The hot days of August are upon us, much of the earth is dry and parched, but we know that the bright reds and yellows of the harvest season are just around the corner. Corn has been planted, tended, harvested and consumed for millennia, and so it’s no wonder that there are myths about the magical properties of this grain.…

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Thann, Alsace and L’œil de la Sorcière (The Witch’s Eye)

The little town of Thann lies on the eastern slopes of the Vosges, in the département of Haut-Rhin (Alsace). A historic town which once belonged to the Habsburgs in the Middle-Ages, it is renown for its remarkable Gothic church and the Rangen vineyard and, in fact, it is also the southern gate to the Alsace Wine Route. According to the legend, the town originated from a miracle attributed to St. Theobald, the Bishop of Gubbio (Umbria, Italy). In 1160, Ubald (or Theobald) saw his death coming soon and promised his…

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St Ninian’s Cave

St Ninian’s Cave stands at the rear of a collapse in part of the rocky headland at the north western end of the stony beach at Physgill, that looks out over Port Castle Bay,some three miles south west of Whithorn. To reach it, there is a car park at Kidsdale, which is signed for St Ninian’s Cave. The walk begins along the path which is signed from a corner of the car park. It then runs down the wooded Physgill Glen. At one point the path divides, with a higher…

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Wat Phu Tok: the most dangerous temple in Thailand?

In Thailand, a country where the majority of inhabitants are Buddhist, there are temples scattered everywhere, even on mountains which are not that practical to build a worship place. Welcome to Bueng Kan province, far in the northeastern Isan region. It’s one of the lesser visited provinces, and you will love it if you are in search for peace, nature, and something off the beaten path. Without a doubt, Wat Phu Tok (วัดภูทอก) is one of the most unique, thrilling, (and scary) temples in Thailand. And, above all, a visit…

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July 15: the weather folklore of St. Swithin’s Day

What’s the weather doing outside your window today? July 15th is St. Swithin’s Day and, according to an ancient tradition, if it rains on this day, it will rain for the next 40 days. In short, the story began in the year 971, when the bones of St Swithin (who had died over 100 years before) were moved to a special shrine at Winchester Cathedral, and there was a terrific storm that lasted for 40 days. And People said that the saint in heaven was weeping because his bones had…

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Alvastra Abbey: the first Cistercian settlement in Sweden

The ruins of the oldest and most important Cistercian monastery of medieval Sweden preserve a part of local history from before the Protestant Reformation, when people donated land or money to gain easier access to heaven after their deaths. This monastery was founded in 1143 when King Sverker the Elder and his queen, who wanted to gain favor with the church, donated land to the French Clairvaux monks and invited them to come and build the sanctuary. Monks, who belonged to the influential Cistercian Order, brought from Clairvaux modern methods…

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The Vestalia: Celebrating Vesta and Purifying Rome

Vesta was an ancient Roman goddess of the domestic and civic hearth whose annual festival, the Vestalia, was celebrated in this period, between the 7th and 15th of June. The Vestalia marked a pause in everyday life as the Romans honoured Vesta and purified her shrine. It was also a time to commemorate the benefits the goddess had brought to the city, and to ensure the continued safety and well-being of Rome and her people. Vesta was an Italic deity whose cult was popular in Pompeii and Latium before either…

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Kanmangafuchi Abyss and the mystery of Jizō statues

Nikko is one of the most popular day trips from Tokyo, and for more than a good reason: it’s got gorgeous shrines, tons of history, and is situated in a really beautiful nature. But besides all the standard stuff you’d see in a trip to Nikko, Kanmangafuchi Abyss (憾満ヶ淵) is probably the most interesting. The area practically untouched by tourists boasts beautiful ravince, rows of shrines, and also a row of stone Jizō statues. How many? Nobody knows for sure, because apparently each time you count them, you end up…

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St. Stephen Bulgarian Church: the unique cast iron Church of Istanbul

We are in Istanbul, Turkey, a city that has no shortage of houses of worship, and the Bulgarian Church of St. Stephen set along the shore of the Golden Horn blends in with its holy brethren at first glance. Upon closer inspection, however, this cross-shaped basilica is like few others in the world. St. Stephen Church has the detailed ornaments of a regular Orthodox stone church, but it’s actually made of prefabricated cast iron elements. Sometimes referred to as “The Iron Church”, it is considered the largest prefabricated cast iron…

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The impressive little Lourdes 30 km from Milan

It would take a miracle to save what should have been the little Lourdes of the Lombard Prealps. In Merate, a small town near Lecco, in Northern Italy, about 30 kilometers from Milan, locals call it “ex Oratorio San Luigi” because, before becoming a dark and decaying ruin, it was the parish meeting point in the city for about 30 years. Actually, this is the Basilica of the Santissima Immacolata, designed in 1906 by Spirito Monsignor Chiappetta, engineer and friend of Pope Pius XI on an area of 4 thousand…

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World’s loneliest monk lives in his own temple in the middle of Tibetan lake 100 miles from nearest town

Located on top of a small mound, on a sliver of land stretching into the serene Yamdrok Lake is Rituo Temple, the home of just one solitary monk who spends his days chanting sutras and meditating. Rituo literally means “the stone on the mountain” in Tibetan, and it is often referred to as Tibet’s loneliest temple. Its history goes back more than 700 years, but it’s still today considered one of the country’s hidden gems, and few tourists venture out to visit it. That’s because it’s located in the middle…

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Fordicidia: Springtime Festival To Tellus in ancient Rome

On the Roman religious calendar, the month of April (Aprilis) was in general dedicated to deities who were female or ambiguous in gender, opening with the Feast of Venus on the Kalends. With celebration of Fordicidia on this day, April 15, all those purifying and propitiatory festivities that characterized the month were launched: the Parilia, a feast of shepherds, on April 21, the Robigalia on April 25, to protect crops from blight, and the Vinalia, one of the two wine festivals on the calendar, at the end of the month.…

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Paschal Full Moon: the curious and complicated link between Easter, Equinox and moon.

Easter is the most important feast day in the Christian calendar. Regularly observed from the earliest days of the Church, it celebrates Christ’s resurrection from the dead, following crucifixion. It marks the end of Holy Week, the end of Lent, and the last day of the Easter Triduum (starting from the evening of Maundy Thursday, through Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday), as well as the beginning of the Easter season of the liturgical year. The resurrection represents the triumph of good over evil, sin, death, and the physical…

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March 17 | Liberalia: an ancient rite of passage

On March 17 the Romans celebrated Liberalia with sacrifices, processions, ribald and gauche songs, and masks which were hung on trees. After the abolition of the Bacchanalia, from the following year these celebrations were established, wild parties (but much less than the previous ones) in honor of the God Libero and his consort Libera, deities linked to wine, to the joy of living and crowned with ivy, such as Bacchus (the Roman version of the Greek god Dionysus). It was not uncommon for a deity to be split into masculine…

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March 14: Mamuralia

In ancient Roman religion, the Mamuralia or Sacrum Mamurio (“Rite for Mamurius”) was a festival held on this day, March 14 or 15, named only in a couple of sources from late antiquity. Apparently an old man wearing animal skins was beaten ritually with sticks. The name is connected to Mamurius Veturius who, according to tradition, was the craftsman who made the ritual shields (ancilia) that hung in the temple of Mars. Because the Roman calendar originally began in March, the Sacrum Mamurio is usually regarded as a ritual marking…

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Salii: the jumping priests of Rome

In ancient Roman religion, the Salii were the “leaping priests” (from the verb saliō “leap, jump”) of Mars supposed to have been introduced by King Numa Pompilius. They were twelve young patrician, dressed as archaic warriors: an embroidered tunic, a breastplate, a short red cloak called paludamentum, a sword, and a spiked headdress called apex. They were charged with the twelve oblong bronze shields with two recesses on the sides, called Ancilia. Among them, there was the authentic shield that Mars dropped from the sky as a gift to king…

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Navigium Isidis: the festival of Isis in Rome

March 5 was the date of an annual, ancient Roman, nautical religious festival called Navigium Isidis, literally “Vessel of Isis”, which was dedicated to Isis, an ancient Egyptian goddess who had been reinterpreted by and for the Greco-Roman world. In the Roman Empire, Isis was identified with various Greek and Roman goddesses, such as Aphrodite, Demeter, Artemis, Tyche, and Fortuna. These complex theological associations were often expressed pictorially, and she was occasionally depicted as a syncretistic deity with the attributes and iconography of one or more of these goddesses. Along…

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2nd March: Holy Wells Day

Of Norse origin, Ceadda was a deity connected to sacred, healing and underground waters and therefore also to springs and wells. Historians have not yet come to the conclusion whether Ceadda was a god or a goddess, although many favor the latter hypothesis, given the main attributes connected to the chthonic sphere and healing waters. Later she passed into the Celtic pantheon and here her symbol became the Crann Bethadh, that is, the Tree of Life. The tree ideally connected the underground world with the celestial one and its roots…

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Praglia Abbey: a Benedictine monastery surrounded by the Euganean Hills

During the Middle Ages, many monks manually copied ancient books so they could be passed on to future generations. Over the years, the invention of the printing press made this work largely obsolete, but thousands of old books remained stored in monasteries. Many of those volumes lies still today in the library of the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria Assunta of Praglia, an almost 1,000-year-old monastery and maybe one of the most important monumental and religious communities in the area, located in the town of Teolo, only 10 minutes from…

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The Legend of the drowned city of Kitezh submerged in Svetloyar Lake

According to a Russian legend, hidden beneath the waters of Lake Svetloyar, in the Nizhny Novgorod Region north-east of Moscow, there is Kitezh, a mythical city built by Georgy II, the Grand Prince of Vladimir in the early part of the 13th century. Its first reference comes in an anonymous late 18th century book known as “the Kitezh Chronicle” which was thought to have originated among the Old Believers of Russia. The book does not actually say that the city disappeared or that it was covered by the lake, but…

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22nd February: the Roman Festival of Caristia.

The Caristia, also called Cara Cognatio, was one of several days in February that Ancient Romans honored family or ancestors. It followed the Parentalia, nine days of remembrance which began on February 13 and concluded with the Feralia on February 21. If for the Parentalia families visited the tombs of their ancestors and shared cake and wine both in the form of offerings and as a meal among themselves, the Feralia was a more somber occasion, a public festival of sacrifices and offerings to the Manes, the spirits of the…

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February 15: The Roman Festival of Lupercalia

Lupercalia was one of the most ancient of the Roman holidays, one of the feriae listed on ancient calendars from even before the time Julius Caesar reformed the calendar. It was held each year in Rome on this day, February 15. Although Valentine’s Day shares its name with a (well, one of many) martyred Christian saint, some historians believe the holiday is actually an offshoot of Lupercalia. Unlike our modern Valentine’s Day, however, Lupercalia was a bloody, violent and sexually-charged celebration filled with animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and coupling in…

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The macabre forgotten profession of Sin-Eaters

The “Sin-Eater” is a profession that survived until the last century: in short, grieving family members of a recently deceased would pay these characters to rid their departed loved ones from all the sins they had accumulated during their lives, and the sin-eaters would then perform an eerie ritual that supposedly allowed the dead to enter Heaven. Documents dating back to 1680 define “funeral in traditional style” as those involving the intervention of these characters, and as soon as the rumor of a death spread, especially if sudden or accidental,…

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February 3: Saint Biagio’s Panettone

February 3th is the day dedicated to the holy protector of the throath, Saint Biagio (known in English as Saint Blaise). Saint Biagio worship is widely spread in the Christian world, especially the area of Milan, Varese, Como, various areas of Piedmont but also in Southern Italy, where locals have been devoted to this Saint for centuries. But why is he a protector of the throat and not, for example, the stomach or other parts or body? Historically, Saint Biagio was physician and bishop of the Armenian city of Sebaste…

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The strange story of the Farne Island devils

The island that Saint Aidan (born around 590 and died in 651), an Irish monk that restored Christianity to Northumberland, (and later St Cuthbert) chose for his retreat was the largest and closest to shore of the Farne Islands, a volcanic archipelago off the coast of Northumberland, England. It is known as Farne Island (Farena Ealande), which may mean literally “Island of the Pilgrims”, and sometimes as Inner Farne. In summer, artic terns nest in the island’s carpet of sea campion and over-protective parents divebomb the heads of visitors treading…

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February 2: Candlemas, feast of purification

Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Feast of the Holy Encounter, is a very old holiday with a Christian-Pagan history commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple (based upon the account of the presentation of Jesus in Luke 2:22–40). According to Leviticus 12, the third book of the Old Testament, a woman was to be purified by presenting a lamb as a burnt offering, and either a young pigeon or dove…

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Imbolc: the ancient Celtic festival of February

Imbolc is a holiday with a variety of names, depending on which culture and location you’re looking at. For istance, in the Irish Gaelic, it’s called Oimelc, which translates literally to “ewe’s milk”. Not by chance, the earliest mentions of Imbolc in Irish literature date back to the 10th century, with poetry from that time who related the holiday to ewe’s milk, as implication of purification. It’s been speculated that this stems from the breeding cycle of sheep and the beginning of lactation, and the holiday was traditionally aligned with…

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Februalia: a time of purification

The ancient Romans had a festival for nearly everything and, if you were a god, you got your own holiday. February was dedicated to Februus, for whom the month is named, and it was the time in which Rome was purified by making offerings and sacrifices to the gods of the dead. The Februalia (January 30–February 2) was a month-long period of sacrifice and atonement, involving offerings to the gods, prayer, and sacrifices. In short, If you were a wealthy Roman who didn’t have to go out and work, you…

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January 17: Saint Anthony the Abbot, The Great, or The Father of Monks

According to traditions, Saint Anthony the Abbot, celebrated on this day, is Patron Saint of Amputees, animals, basket makers, brush makers, butchers, cemetery workers, domestic animals, epileptics, gravediggers, hermits, skin diseases, but also hogs, pigs and swine. The life of Anthony will remind many people of Saint Francis of Assisi. At 20, he was so moved by the Gospel message, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21b), that he actually did just that with his large inheritance. However, he is different from Francis in that…

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