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Witchcraft and the Art of Winemaking

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Maybe you’ve heard a bad bottle of wine being described as “corked.” This is the fault of TCA, a chemical compound that contaminates wine barrels and corks, giving vino an odor similar to Grandma’s dirty basement or a wet dog. Corked wine isn’t pleasant, but it certainly sounds more appealing than a bottle filled with witch pee—reportedly a common problem in 16th century Italy, when people thought that witches, after retiring from their midnight parties on the Satanic Sabbath, would break into wine cellars and urinate and defecate in the bottles and casks after drinking their fill. Villages would regularly toss out barrels of wine, convinced they’d been contaminated with unholy excrement.

The northern province of Friuli had some help with the problem. The Benandanti, or Good Walkers, were members of an ancient agrarian cult that believed themselves to be practitioners of white magic, and used their powers to protect vintners and farmers.

Membership in the Benandanti was an accident of birth. Children who emerged from the womb with their faces wrapped in a caul, or a piece of amniotic membrane, were thought to have healing powers and the ability to see witches, making them prime candidates to join the group. As children like this grew, they were said to go into a trance and experience strange visions on specific nights. Around the time a benandante turned 20, another benandante would come to visit them during one of these visions and show them the purpose of the trances. Their spirits would reportedly leave their bodies and ride roosters, goats or other animals through the sky, drinking the neighbors’ wine and joining other Benandanti in the woods.

But that's not all they did: The Benandanti would also battle the witches during their Satanic Sabbath by flanking them and attacking them with stalks of fennel. The witches fought back with stalks of sorghum. If they won the battle, crops would wither, children and animals would get sick, and the town's wine casks would become toilets. If the Benandanti won, though, the nearby villages would be safe and prosperous for the season. The fields would be fertile, the animals healthy, and the wine clean and delicious.

Unfortunately, the Benandanti were active during the Roman Inquisition, which prosecuted scores of people for heresy, blasphemy, sorcery, and witchcraft. Inquisitors investigated the Benandanti and at first claimed them heretics, but ultimately decided that their activity was “benign magic” and not Satanic.

No Benandanti were executed, but the Inquisition’s initial denounciation of them left unpopular with the villagers. They became synonymous with the very witches they fought against, and the cult declined and disappeared, leaving the wine to fend for itself.

Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]


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