Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers by Matt Kaplan (Scribner’s, 2015) 246 pages
This book starts out with a lot of promise. The whole point is that a lot of the things that we once thought of as magical (the result of magic) are now shown by science to be factual (the result of things being the way they are). But somewhere in the middle, this early promise sort of peters out and readers are left with the feeling that a lot of the material is just there to fill out a book. For me, this happened somewhere between the readings of animal livers in ancient Rome (which was very good) and the investigation of gateways to the underworld (which was sort of “okay, so?”).
The solid science of the first part of the book gives way to a lot of speculation in the second part. Now, none of this book’s content could be written without at least some speculation, of course, but when the word “science” appears in the title, it would be nice to have as much science throughout the whole book as possible. After all, there aren’t any Roman Empire priests still around to ask and have them say “Why, yes, that’s exactly what we were looking for when we pulling those hot, steaming livers from those freshly sacrificed sheep…”
Kaplan investigates nine major areas to explore the current science surrounding certain “superstitious” practices. These are Healing (does praying help?), Transformation (into berserk warriors or the opposite gender), Immortality and Longevity (Holy Grail helps?), Supernatural Skies (does weather bring disease?), Animal and Plants as Omens, Guides, and Gods (do wolves and ravens know something we don’t?), Prophecy (oracles and liver readers), Beyond the Grave (actually, near death more than ghosts), Enchantment (psychedelics and love potions), and Superhumans (fire walkers and towel driers).
Some of this stuff reminds me of things I’ve seen on Mythbusters (can you raise your internal temperature mentally?). But a lot of it was new to me, and rather fascinating. Kaplan has an east style, although he can sometimes stretch a paragraph of real material into a couple of pages. Feel free to flip to the good parts.
Which is what I’m going to do here.
Although it isn’t directly related to praying and healing, the first things I got form the book (page 16) was about the Ancient Egyptians and eye makeup. We all know the kohl-heavy, overly-done-up eyes of King Tut and others, men and women alike. But only priests of Horus and Ra and their good buddies got to wear it. Recently, modern science has shown that the mixture of calcium and lead, if just right, protects against various eye disease common in North Africa and the surrounding deserts (page 17). Who wouldn’t worship a god whose followers were all obviously healthier than the people who worshipped some other (false) deity?
On page 22, we learn that researchers like to keep lab mice in cooler temperatures (room temperature for us: 68 to 72 degrees F) than the mice would prefer (in the mid-80s). This slows the mice’s metabolism; they eat less, poop less, and they have to clean the cages less frequently. But the mice prefer it warmer, and when given a choice, all migrate to warmer cages instead of cooler ones. And, as it turns out, the warmer the mice are, the stronger their immunity systems are. So mice, sick or not, react differently when cool or warm. This fact, of course, has enormous implications for, say, cancer treatment research done on chilled mice (page 24). This result is so new that it hasn’t been widely circulated, but maybe Kaplan’s book will help.
In the next chapter, Kaplan discusses how the “bear-serker” warriors of the Vikings might have spiked their beer with mushrooms or other psychedelics to ward off pain and ignore wounds (page 37). There are lots of hints, like traces of plants in Viking graves (page 40), but no smoking gun has been found yet. I think they were just nuts.
The most interesting thing I found in Chapter 3 on immortality was the new research into ageing and calorie deprivation. It was long known that, within limits, a restricted input of calories—less than 1200 per day instead of 2000 or more—had measurable health benefits. Animal studies showed increased life spans as well. One thing I did not know was that a substance called Rapamycin (page 70) can fool the body into thinking calories are scarce, even when they aren’t. Sounds great: eat all you want and still starve yourself to health and longevity. Ah, but rapamycin suppresses the immune system, and that can offset the supposed benefits. But Kaplan suggests more research might find a way forward, and low protein intake might be the key (page 73).
(As an aside, I’ve always thought that ageing was related to nutrition and exercise. People don’t slow down and eat differently because they age, they age because they stop eating right and aren’t as active as they should be. I am in the midst of a life-long—well, for almost 40 years now—experiment to prove that. I’ll let you know how it turns out.) 🙂
The next chapter deals with things like full moon effects (“lunatics”) and the Viking sunstone that always found the sun, even through thick clouds. This chapter really didn’t drag me in, and most of it was inconclusive when it came to the “science” anyway.
Chapter 5 had a fascinating exploration of the relationship between ravens, wolves, and Odin (yes, I know a lot of this book involves Northern European lore and “magic”). Odin, the big Viking god, had two raven buddies named Hugin (“thoughtful”) and Munin (“mindful”). Odin was so closely associated with these ravens that people called him Rafnagud, the Raven God. He also had two wolves around named Gore (“greedy”) and Freke (“voracious”). It’s clear from the names that the scavenger ravens are the brains, and the vicious wolves the brawn, of the operation. But why the raven and wolf mix?
Page 102 reports studies done in Yellowstone Park, showing that ravens and wolves often cooperate to find game. The ravens would follow the wolf pack, hoping to have some yummy leftovers to feast on when the wolves were done with dinner. In fact, the ravens had a hard time finding kills places by the rangers without the wolves to guide them. Not only that, but the ravens would circle over weak and vulnerable prey, waiting for the wolves to follow them to a good place for dinner (page 103). Odin appears to come in when early humans learned the whole raven-wolf trick and began stealing kills from the wolf pack (of course, the wolves became dogs and had their revenge).
A last word on livers…what could a Roman priest learn about the future by carving up a sheep and examining the liver? Plenty, as it turns out. On page 133, Kaplan suggests that the appearance of the liver could tell an invading army a lot about the state of the food and water in the area. Kaplan goes to a butcher to find livers and see if it is possible to tell diseased from heathy livers, and it is. But again, we really have no idea if we’re on the right track or not. The Roman priests have guarded their secrets well…