August 24, AD 79: Vesuvius Destroys Pompeii!

The Arch of Tiberius in the ruins of Pompeii (ohoto from the Smithsonian Magazine)

August 24, 79 A.D. – Vesuvius, an active volcano in southern Italy, erupted and destroyed the cities of Pompeii, Stabiae and Herculaneum. Although we think of the destruction of the cities as a sudden, unexpected catastrophe, there was ample time for most residents (18,000 out of 20,000) to escape Pompeii. They could see the volcano erupting for several hours before the ash and lava engulfed the city itself. The 2,000 people who died were the ones who refused to leave, who insisted that they would be safe, that the danger was being exaggerated by others, that the city would escape unscathed. (Aren’t there always people like that, in every natural disaster, who refuse to leave when they have the chance and then endanger others who have to come and rescue them? I remember the folks who refused to leave flood-prone area during Hurricane Sandy.)

Mythology tells us that Hercules, in the performance of his 12 labors, passed through the area and found “a hill which anciently vomited out fire … now called Vesuvius.” It was inhabited by bandits, “the sons of the Earth,” who were giants. With the assistance of the gods, Hercules pacified the region and went on. Because of his exploits in the area, one of the cities took the name “Herculaneum;” tourists can visit its ruins today although they are not as famous as the ruins of Pompeii.

Because the city of Pompeii was totally overwhelmed and buried by ash, it was perfectly preserved until its re-discovery in 1599 and then popularization in 1748. The objects that lay beneath the city have been preserved for more than a millennium because of the long lack of air and moisture. These artefacts provide an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city during the Pax Romana. During the excavation, plaster was used to fill in the voids in the ash layers that once held human bodies. This allowed archaeologists to see the exact position the person was in when he or she died.

Pompeii has been a tourist destination for over 250 years. I was lucky enough to spend a day there in the autumn of 2014 (or was it 2013?). It was amazing to see such a perfectly preserved city, just waiting to be re-inhabited. I’ll be happy to occupy a villa, if one becomes available!


“Alexei” and I close-up at the Brooklyn Book Festival (September 2016)

I recently began a new feature on Facebook and Twitter by posting a brief, “fun fact” in honor of #WerewolfWednesday each week.

I got this idea during the International Thriller Writers conference I attended this July in midtown. (Over 700 authors from across North America and Canada were there but luckily I didn’t need to pay for airfare or hotel room; I only needed to ride the subway and buy a few extra lunches at a deli! The conference was a great experience — I learned a lot about writing, characterization, plotting, tension, etc. as well as practical things like what you can or cannot learn from an autopsy, how hostage negotiators work, how blood spatter can be examined, how the FBI forensics lab is organized. I met lots of thriller writers who work not only in supernatural thrillers but in many other subgenres as well. There were also lots of agents there and each agent I spoke with asked for sample pages of Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes–the novel I am currently working on.)

So far, #WerewolfWednesday has shared:

The elite did not believe werewolves existed. Church teaching insisted ALL werewolf claims were frauds.

Werewolf trials began in Switzerland during the 1600s and were finished by the late 1700s, just like witchcraft trials.

In Roman folktales, a man became a wolf after eating a child’s intestines but was restored to human form after 10 years.

Upcoming #WerewolfWednesday features will include werewolf folklore from the Satyricon, as well as from Slavic, French, Italian, and German sources.

If you haven’t “liked” or “followed” my Author Pages on Facebook or Twitter, click on the links above!

Doppelgängers and Dolly the Sheep

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “How They Met Themselves,” watercolor, 1864

The first cloning of an animal by scientists was revealed on July 5, 1996 by the Roslin Institute in Scotland when DOLLY THE SHEEP was cloned from tissue taken from a 6 year old ewe’s udder.

But the idea of such a copy or perfect duplicate of a person, often known as a doppelgänger, is an ancient one in folklore and mythology. Ancient Egyptians believed that a “spirit double” could be formed by magicians and that this new entity would share all the same memories of the original. In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and died. German and Norse folklore thought that if your double was seen, this meant that you were about to die. Discovering your double was NOT a good thing! Meeting yourself going the other direction can lead only to destruction.

Rosetti’s watercolor, How They Met Themselves, illustrates the notion that meeting yourself means that you are about to die. In the painting, a pair of lovers meet themselves and the original woman faints with shock. (In real life, the woman who posed for this character died about two years after this painting was finished.) In his later life, Rossetti filled his home with mirrors so that he and his guests were constantly encountering themselves going the other way.

In Irish folklore so popular with the pre-Raphealites, a “fetch” is a supernatural double or an apparition of a living person. Meeting a fetch is regarded as an omen, usually of impending death.

The origin of the Irish word for the duplicate person is obscure. It may derive from the verb “fetch,” as in the compound “fetch-life”, evidently referring to a psychopomp who “fetches” the souls of the dying, which is attested in Richard Stanyhurst’s 1583 translation of the Aeneid. Alternately, the word may derive from fæcce, which is glossed for mære, a spirit associated with death and nightmares.

I remember that when newspapers announced Dolly’s existence, many people claimed that the cloned sheep was a nightmare-come-to-life and was a harbinger of many other Frankenstein-like horrors about to be unleashed onto the world. Those predictions have thankfully proved false–so far!