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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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In modern economies, we use an agreed-upon medium of exchange, or currency, to trade with merchants, corporations, and our neighbors. Throughout history, this has most often been domestic animals, agricultural staples like rice and barley, salt, beads, cowry shells, precious metal, and government-backed legal tender. These are things that can be led or carried by the owner. However, what if your currency is an enormous limestone disc that can be over three meters in diameter and weigh four metric tons? What if it is a shovel blade that one can put the handle back in and use in the field? Some agreed-upon currencies used throughout history, and even in the modern day, we would consider impractical.

article-imageYap stone in Micronesia (photograph by tata_aka_T/Flickr)

On the Micronesian island of Yap stand the Rai stones. Limestone is a very rare mineral in this area of the Pacific. The stone was quarried mainly from the island of Palau, with Guam supplying some for a time as well. Originally fashioned into the shape of fish, and later as circular discs, these stones are still used today, though mainly for social transactions like marriage by the Yapese. Instead of carrying these behemoths across the island, giving the stone can be as simple as saying it belongs to a new owner, and the “bank statement” would be the oral history of the stone’s possessors. Not all Rai stones are colossal, and vary in value by their history, as well as size. Even a stone that sank into the ocean is still considered owned, because it is agreed upon that the stone is still there, and it has a history.

In ancient Greece, rods of various metals were used as currency before coins. These are the oboloi (singular obolos, or obol in English) — rods of iron, copper, or silver about a meter in length. In Athens, six oboloi equaled one drachma, meaning “handful.” The word passed into usage as the name of Greece’s currency until the euro was adopted. Even after the introduction of coins, Plutarch wrote that Sparta kept using oboloi to discourage the pursuit of wealth over deeds in battle. One obolos could buy a ritual cup with wine.

 

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A drachma of oboloi (via Odysses/Wikimedia)

In Zhou Dynasty China, there are two examples of tools being used as currency. Spades and weeding tools with the handle taken off were used in northeast China. This is known as spade money. When first used, the spade kept the hole so the handle could be reattached. In time, the money of the area and era kept the spade shape, but shrank to a more manageable size. In some areas, various stories took hold about how knives became traded, and then for 400 years, knife money became the currency. These knives weren’t edged, but they did have the same shape and dimensions as common knives of the time.

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article-imageNorth Korea (photograph by Darmon Richter)

North Korea might not be everybody's first choice of holiday destination. In fact, many remain oblivious to the fact tourism to North Korea is even a thing. In fairness, it’s easy to see how anyone who follows the news might find a leisurely holiday in the DPRK (or “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”) to be irreconcilable with everything they think they know about the place: a totalitarian nightmare of gulags and thought police, poverty and oppression.

This article is to examine the nature of tourism in North Korea, and to speculate just how much any of us can ever truly know about this secretive “Hermit Kingdom.”

The Quest for Authenticity

The search for authentic insight into other cultures has become a cliché; it is the Holy Grail of the backpacker, the travel blogger’s muse, the driving force behind many an off-the-beaten-path adventure. This trope of travelers searching for an unspoiled slice of foreign heaven formed the premise of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach. The blockbuster film which followed generated enough traffic to virtually destroy the chances of stumbling across such paradise in Thailand. The remote Thai island known as Koh Phi Phi, where Garland set his story, is now a chaos of hotels, bars, souvenir shops, and strip clubs. This beach paradise has been fully commercialized.

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Statues of the nation's leaders on Mansu Hill, Pyongyang (photograph by Darmon Richter)

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A man waits for a bus on a street in Pyongyang (photograph by Darmon Richter)

So what about North Korea? As far as original travel goes, it doesn’t get much more off-the-grid than the DPRK — a country that we Westerners know so very little about and where email, phones, and messaging are as good as forbidden. The conservative nature of tourism to North Korea however, makes the prospect of authentic interaction all the more elusive.

Getting into North Korea is easy. Most passports — US included — require only the approval of a basic tourist visa, a process which generally takes less than a month. Discovering authentic culture however, embracing the real North Korea, may prove somewhat more difficult.

The Illusion of Pyongyang

The truth is, the North Korean government doesn’t want you to see their reality. Western tourists are allotted trained guides, whose job it is to show you all the sights approved by the nation’s leadership. In fairness, it’s as thorough and culture-packed a tour as you’re ever likely to experience, a whistle-stop ride around the DPRK’s landmarks and museums, monuments, palaces, memorials, and mausoleums. They’ll treat you to fine examples of traditional Korean cuisine, while every site you visit will (sometimes literally) roll out the red carpet for your approach. You’ll get to skip the queue at Mangyongdae Funfair. Children will sing and dance for your entertainment. 

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