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article-imagePhoto taken from a roll of film found at the camp of the Dyatlov Pass incident (via Wikimedia)

In January of 1959, 23-year-old Igor Dyatlov led a group of eight young Soviet hikers, comprising seven men and two women and mostly university students, into the Ural Mountains, attempting to reach Mt. Ortorten from the small settlement of Vizhai. It took more than three months to locate all nine of their bodies.

They were found about six miles away from their destination, in a forest almost a mile away from their campsite, without their skis, shoes, or coats in approximately -30 degrees Fahrenheit weather. Two of them had fractured skulls, two more had major chest fractures, and one hiker was missing her tongue. Soviet investigators listed the cause of death as “a compelling natural force,” and abruptly closed the case not even a month later.

article-imageSkiers setting up camp at about 5. p.m. on Feb. 2, 1959. Photo taken from a roll of film found at the camp of the Dyatlov Pass incident (via Wikimedia)

Here’s what we know about the incident. Six of the skiers died of hypothermia and three died of injuries. They died separately — two of them were found under a cedar tree near the remains of a fire, while three others were found in intervals of hundreds of feet from the tree, and four more were in a ravine another 250 feet away. The two under the tree had burned hands. The four in the ravine weren’t found until May 4, three months after the incident. The dead seemed to have donated some of their clothing items to the living; Ludmila Dubinina’s foot was wrapped in a piece of Yuri Krivonischenko’s pants, while Semyon Zolotaryov was found wearing Dubinina’s hat and coat, and some garments had cuts in them, as though they were forcibly removed. Consistently, there were eight or nine sets of footprints in the snow, accounting only for the skiers and not suggesting another party’s involvement (on foot, at least). There was no sign of struggle or of any other human or animal approaching the campsite. There was a snowstorm the night of February 2, which is when it was determined, via their diaries, that they died.

article-imageA view of the tent as the rescuers found it on Feb. 26, 1959 (via Wikimedia

Their campsite was made on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl (Dead Mountain), at about 3,600 feet. All the travelers — eight of them in their early/mid-20s with Zolotaryov in his late 30s — were experienced mountaineers, having skied across frozen lakes and totally uninhabited areas to get there. Despite nasty weather and slower progress than they'd planned, their last diary entries reflected high spirits. Charmingly, in a very typical Soviet way of bonding, they even produced a little newspaper about the trip, which they titled The Evening Ortoten and which bore the headline: From now on, we know that the snowmen exist. It goes on to say, “They can be met in the Northern Urals, next to Otorten mountain." (They were, it's thought, probably jokingly referring to themselves.)

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article-imageLuis Ricardo Falero, "The Witches' Sabbath" (1880), oil on canvas (via Wikimedia)
Witches were almost always portrayed naked until the 1900s. 

In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin. 
 1324 investigation of suspected witch Lady Alice Kyteler.

Silhouetted against the moon, pointy hat pushed back by the wind, the witch on her magic broomstick is an iconic image, ubiquitous during the Halloween season. While the image can be found pasted in elementary schools throughout America, the story of why witches look they way they do, and why they fly on broomsticks, is a racier, lesser known tale. What follows is mildly NSFW. 

For a long time the common  answer to the question of why witches flew on broomsticks was relatively straightforward if a bit broad. The broom was a symbol of female domesticity, yet the broom was also phallic, so riding on one was a symbol of female sexuality, thus femininity and domesticity gone wild. Scary for any patriarch! It wasn't just women, however. The first known reference to witches flying on broomsticks was confessed by a suspected male witch, Guillaume Edelin of Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris, while he was being tortured in 1453. 

There was also once a common pagan fertility ritual where poles, pitchforks, and brooms (basically, phallic objects in general) were piloted through the fields with people jumping as high as they could to entice the crops to grow to that height. (A tradition related to the jumping of the broom wedding traditions.) Reginald Scot's book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, published in 1584, described these festivals as such:

At these magical assemblies, the witches never failed to dance; and in their dance they sing these words, 'Har, har, divell divell, dance here dance here, plaie here plaie here, Sabbath, Sabbath.' And whiles they sing and dance, ever one hath a broom in her hand, and holdeth it up aloft.

Combine pagans, brooms, phallic fertility symbols, and jumping into the air, and you have all the ingredients you need for the myth of the flying witch. But there is another possibility, a more literal and much saucier origin story of the witches riding their broomsticks

article-imageFrancisco Goya, "Witches' Sabbath (The Great He-Goat)" (1821-1823), oil on canvas
(via Wikimedia)

Besides riding on broomsticks, the second most iconic image of a witch is of old hags brewing up a witches brew, the old "double, double toil and trouble" of Shakespeare's Macbeth, written in the early 1600s. But just what were these witches actually brewing up? Well, around the same time as the first reports of witches flying broomsticks is the mention of "flying ointments." 

The use of hallucinogenic plants for shamanic purposes goes back to prehistory. In medieval Europe there were a number of hallucinogenic plants in fairly easy supply. First among these was the rye mold containing ergot fungi. With effects on humans similar to LSD, ergot was a powerful hallucinogen. Among other readily accessible hallucinogenic plants were henbane, deadly nightshade, mandrake, and, according to Johann Weyer in his 1563 Praestigiis Daemonum, these were all principal ingredients in any witch's "flying ointment."

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article-imageEmblem from Daniel Cramer's 1624 "Emblemata Sacra" (all images via Internet Archive Book Images)

An eagle sprouts from a heart and soars above severed hands and feet stamped with stigmata; a hand reaches out from the clouds to stab a heart through with a hammer. The strange and surreal scenes are part of an incredible series of woodcuts in a 17th-century manual of the soul.

Emblemata Sacra (1624) by Daniel Cramer is just one of many emblem books published between the 16th and 18th centuries. At a time when literacy was still low, they mixed detailed religious symbolism with recognizable objects from the everyday to offer a visual component for the textual stories. Cramer, a Lutheran theologian from Germany, was especially drawn to the heart. Moving away from the Catholic Church with its belief in an actual transformation of the host into the body of Christ during communion, this heart was more a symbol. As Emily Jo Sargent wrote in an essay for The Heart (2007, Yale University Press), "During the seventeenth century, books of 'Emblems' were published, which featured this symbol over and over again in a series of situations intended as a guide to the various duties and sufferings of the good Christian heart."

You can think of them as a sort of morbid precursor to the hearts of Valentines and emoticons that we know today. The brutal journey of the heart, representing the trials of individuals in seeking salvation, have the organ sailing rough seas, riding with wings on the back of snail, and sprouting flowers and wheat. Not all of it is immediately understandable now, but the arcane visuals were meant for deep contemplation on perseverance, faith, and how to live in line with religion. Cramer's book was so popular it had numerous editions in German, French, Latin, and Italian. It even got into the visual architecture of the protestant churches, and you can still find these emblems with heart motifs on everything from pews to pulpits in the Protestant churches in Northern Europe.

The entire publication is viewable online at the Internet Archive (part of the greater Emblem Collection of the University of Illinois), and more of the Cramer emblems are at the Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr Commons. Below are some highlights, and perhaps ideas for the tattoos you never knew you needed. 




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article-imageNational Park Neusiedler See-Seewinkel in Austria, part of the European Green Belt (photograph by Leander Khil/Wikimedia)

Europe’s landscapes have been intensely impacted by human beings for thousands of years. Deforestation in Crete was rampant by the late Bronze Age; 200 years of hydraulic gold-mining by the Romans sculpted the famed Las Médulas badlands of Spain. Despite this legacy — or perhaps because of the perspective it gives Europeans on the place of humanity in ecological systems — the continent today lays claim to some of the most visionary conservation efforts going on anywhere.

Among the most ambitious is an international attempt to transform a gloomy frontier into an epic refuge for wild things and wild processes. What was once called the Iron Curtain has been reborn as the European Green Belt, a protected natural corridor of unprecedented scale and remarkable heritage.

The Iron Curtain materialized at the close of World War II, and served as the fortified, sometimes bloody seam between Soviet-affiliated territory and Western Europe through the Cold War’s long reign. As political reforms and popular uprisings dismantled the Curtain in the late 1980s and early 1990s, conservationists took note of how remarkably wild much of the narrow strip was that it had constituted. Here were mature forests, stretches of free-flowing river, and naturally functioning wetlands; here were populations of plants and animals rare or extirpated from other parts of Europe. The tense no-man’s-land character of the Iron Curtain, where human access was severely limited, had created a refuge for wilderness and wildlife from Finland to Bulgaria.

But even as Europe celebrated the fall of the Iron Curtain, environmentalists worried that development and resource-extraction would swiftly erase the former divide’s comparatively pristine state. Protecting the corridor would mean balancing the economic and cultural livelihoods of local populations, conducting thorough ecological inventories, and implementing international cooperation between numerous interest groups.

article-imageThe European Green Belt (image by Smaack/Wikimedia)

Formalized in the early 2000s by the conservation group Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) and the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), the concept of the European Green Belt spread impressively along the old Iron Curtain course. The European Green Belt Initiative has now been laboring to establish and link protected zones across some 7,768 miles between the Barents Sea’s Arctic coast to the balmier shores of the Black Sea for better than a decade. It threads an astonishing 24 countries and 40 national parks within a vast spectrum of native biomes, from the Fennoscandian taiga to the beech woods and high-country meadows of the Jablanica-Shebenik Mountains in the Balkans.

article-imagePodyjí National Park in the Czech Republic (photograph by Joadl/Wikimedia)

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WHOI Diving Safety Officer Edward O'Brien "spacewalks" in Exosuit, suspended from the Hellenic Navy vessel THETIS during the 2014 Return to Antikythera project. (photograph by Brett Seymour, courtesy Return to Antikythera 2014)

In 1900 some sponge divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera stumbled upon what would turn out to be the richest and largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered. Over the next two years a great number of ancient artifacts were recovered from the site — coins, bronze and metal statues, glasswork, and a very corroded bronze device called the Antikythera mechanism, used to calculate astronomical positions, that is considered the world's oldest analog computer.

article-imageThe Antikythera mechanism (photograph by Marsyas/Wikimedia)

Then a few divers died, and the shipwreck, which is 55 meters deep and covers 300 meters of the seafloor, was deemed too dangerous for continued exploration. Decades later, in 1976, Jacques Cousteau brought a team back down, and over 27 days they were able to recover hundreds more ancient objects. No one else has investigated the wreck since — until now. 

Last month a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution headed back under, equipped with a one-of-a-kind diving system called the Exosuit. The suit is made of aluminum alloy and weighs 530 pounds — but more importantly, it allows divers to stay underwater for up to 50 hours, is safe at depths of 1,000 feet, and does not require decompression on the way back up. (Here's Atlas Obscura's previous coverage of the Exosuit.)

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