Map of Bones

In the wrong hands, the bones of the Magi could destroy the world!

During a crowded service at a cathedral in Germany, armed intruders in monks’ robes unleash a nightmare of blood and destruction. But the killers have not come for gold; they seek a more valuable prize: the bones of the Magi who once paid homage to a newborn savior . . . a treasure that could reshape the world.

With the Vatican in turmoil, Sigma Force under the command of Grayson Pierce leaps into action, pursuing a deadly mystery that weaves through sites of the Seven Wonders of the World and ends at the doorstep of an ancient, mystical, and terrifying secret order. For there are those with dark plans for the stolen sacred remains that will alter the future of humankind . . . when science and religion unite to unleash a horror not seen since the beginning of time.

Looking for a good book to read this summer? I highly recommend Map of Bones by James Rollins.

The book opens with an attack on the relics (bones) of the Magi in Cologne on July 23, the anniversary of the day the relics were brought to Cologne in 1164. The Three Kings were very popular and attracted a constant stream of pilgrims to Cologne. Construction of the present Cologne Cathedral was begun in 1248 to house these important relics. The cathedral took 632 years to complete and is now the largest Gothic church in northern Europe.

A mystery, “The Bishop and the Three Kings” by Andrew Greeley, is also about the theft of the shrine.

Read more about the shrine of the Magi in Cologne here.

St.-Swithun-in-the-Swamp

Contemporary Shrine of St Swithun in Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, England UK

When I was in high school and hung out in the church office, the secretary and I often made jokes about a fictional parish we named “St.-Swithun-in-the-swamp.” The poor people of St. Swithun’s suffered many indignities and outrageous fortune’s arrows, not least their unfortunate location in the murky swamp. Imagine my surprise, many years later, to discover the real St. Swithun (who died in AD 862), bishop of Winchester, whose memory is celebrated every July 15.

St. Swithun was known for many miracles. One of the most famous incidents involved a group of workmen who broke all the eggs in a poor woman’s basket as she was crossing a bridge. Swithun demanded the workmen apologize to the woman and then he blessed her basket of eggs–which repaired all the broken shells and runny yolks so that she had intact eggs again.

St. Swithun is also said to influence the weather. His feast day is July 15 and determines the weather for the next six weeks–much as the weather on Groundhog Day determines the weather for the rest of February and March.

“St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare.”

Swithun was initially buried out of doors, rather than in his cathedral, apparently at his own request. William of Malmesbury recorded that the bishop left instructions that his body should be buried outside the church, “where it might be subject to the feet of passers-by and to the raindrops pouring from on high,” which has been taken as indicating that the legend was already well known in the 12th century.

There might be a scientific basis to the weather pattern behind the legend of St Swithun’s day and the weather. Around the middle of July, the jet stream settles into a pattern which, in the majority of years, holds reasonably steady until the end of August. When the jet stream lies north of the British Isles then continental high pressure is able to move in; when it lies across or south of the British Isles, Arctic air and Atlantic weather systems predominate.

July 12, 1801: Two Strikes? Vampires home free!

The Monastery of Horezu, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Wallachia, Romania

The Monastery of Horezu, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Wallachia, Romania

Wallachia, the region of southern Romania which borders the more famous region of Transylvania to the north, was an independent principality until 1859, when it united with Moldavia to form the basis of the modern state of Romania. Transylvania joined 59 years later (1918) to form the new Kingdom of Romania. Vlad the Impaler, often thought to have inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was actually the ruler of Wallachia (not Transylvania).

In 1801, before its unification with Moldavia, farmers and rural peasants still believed fervently in vampires even though modern science was beginning to dispel belief in vampires among the aristocracy. One of the more common ways farmers had in Wallachia to dispatch a vampire was to exhume the body and decapitate the corpse. If the vampire seemed to still attack the living after that, then the body was exhumed again and the body was either turned face-down or a wooden stake driven through it. If the attacks still seemed to continue, the body would be dug up a third time and burned (which was a difficult undertaking because dead bodies are so moist and therefore the last resort of vampire dispatchers — you can read about the fascinating science involved in burning dead bodies in Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality by Paul Barber).

It was the continued exhumation of corpses which came to the attention of the Wallachian authorities. On July 1, 1801 the authorities in Wallachia proclaimed that a corpse could not be exhumed more than TWICE in Wallachian territory if it was suspected of being a vampire!

Blood was not only important to the vampires the Wallachian farmers were trying to destroy. The stunningly beautiful Curtea de Arges Monastery was built by a ruler of Wallachia in 1512. But the walls kept crumbling because of a problem with the foundations. The architect and construction workers resorted to an ancient practice to reinforce the foundations: they sprinkled the blood of a newborn baby on the foundations and the walls stopped crumbling. (Another version of the story says how the pregnant wife of the architect was sealed alive inside the walls in order to stop them from crumbling.)