As I promised recently on my Facebook page, I'm presenting some of my favorite tales of hauntings, monsters and all-around bizarre stuff leading up to Halloween and the launch of my second book, The Men in the Trees.
I'm starting with the 1901 case of Charlotte Anne E. Moberly and Eleanor F. Jourdain, two English academics whose strange experiences at the palace of Versailles outside Paris became a sensation. I thought this was a great story to start with since these ladies' experiences in France also culminated in a book.
Miss Moberly was the first principal of St. Hugh's College, a prestigious all-women's institution inside Oxford University. Miss Jourdain was Miss Moberly's assistant and ultimately succeeded her as Principal when the latter retired in 1915. Both were daughters of English clergymen and considered themselves devoutly Christian and opposed to the Spiritualism movement which was sweeping Europe and America at the time.
In August 1901, the Jourdain and Moberly headed to France on vacation. They had limited experiences with the country and, by their own admissions, little knowledge of its history and culture. (Part of the reason for the trip was to educate themselves on both.) On August 10, they visited Versailles, the sprawling estate created by the French monarchy before it was abolished in 1792. After the French Revolution which culminated in the execution of King Louis XVI and his unpopular queen, Marie Antoinette, the palace and its gardens were made public. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Versailles was a popular destination spot for tourists.
After touring the main palace, the two women decided to see the Petit Trianon, the estate-within-the-estate created for Marie Antoinette. The reconstruction of this area began shortly after Marie Antoinette married Louis at only nineteen years of age. The queen was easily bored by the intrigues of the royal court, so the entire parcel was reconfigured to entertain her. It contained palatial homes, mysterious grottos, picturesque lakes and trickling streams. One entire hillside was replanted with pine trees to simulate the Swiss mountains the queen remembered from her childhood. Other areas simulated the French countryside, replete with farmlands and a working dairy. All in all, it was an extravagant melding of nature, architecture and imagination... and proof positive of the excesses that led to the Revolution and Marie Antoinette's own death.
As they wandered, Jourdain and Moberly encountered a variety of individuals, buildings and events that appeared to be at least one hundred years removed from their own time. Highlights included:
Unable to explain their experiences, Moberly and Jourdain returned at least three times to Versailles and spent four years quietly researching its history. Although they shared little, even with close friends and family, they finally made their account public in 1905. The book was entitled An Adventure. But its publication came with risks. As women in sexist Edwardian society, they were open to ridicule and even the destruction of their careers. Ultimately, they chose to publish under the pseudonyms Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont.
Although it quickly became a best-seller, reaction to An Adventure was mixed at best. The prestigious Society for Psychical Research was critical, stating (correctly) that much of the supporting documentation could've been known to the authors prior to visiting Versailles. Others claimed that the whole account was some kind of mutual fantasy produced by repressed homosexual desires or that they had stumbled upon a fancy-dress party and were too naive to realize it. A more charitable theory supposed that the women experienced a time-slip, a paranormal phenomenon where a living person inadvertently steps through a portal into another era. (For more on this, please reference any of a dozen episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
It ultimately boiled down to a chicken vs. egg argument. Did the women manufacture a carefully researched hoax? Or did they have a legitimate paranormal experience which they attempted to prove through careful research?
Interestingly, James H. Hyslop, Secretary-Treasurer for the American Society of Psychical Research recommended the book, although with some reservations:
"...We can only commend reading [An Adventure] to every one interested in psychic research, regardless of explanations. Of course the first question which every one will ask himself is: "Is this romance or reality?" As the stories are told they seem perfectly incredible, tho psychic researchers are accustomed to quite as startling phenomena. But the manner of telling the story at first suggests a romance and it is only the preface and the appended note by the publishers that tend to inspire trust in the seriousness of the incidents..." – Journal of the American Society of Psychical Research, Volume 5, No. 7, July 1911, pp. 405-06
So does AN ADVENTURE recount a true haunting? Versailles was a place of great drama and suffering, a excellent stage for ghosts of all kinds. To this day, strange phenomenon is regularly reported on the grounds. Moberly and Jourdain even note a long history of hauntings around the Petit Trianon, including sightings of Marie Antoinette:
"That evening when I was preparing to write down my experiences, a French friend whose home was in Paris came into my room, and I asked her, just on the chance, if she knew any story about the haunting of the Petit Trianon. (I had not mentioned our story to her before, nor indeed to anyone.) She said directly that she remembered hearing from friends at Versailles that on a certain day in August Marie Antoinette is regularly seen sitting outside the garden front at the Petit Trianon, with a light flapping hat and a pink dress..." –Personal account by Frances Lamont (Jourdain) in An Adventure, page 21-22.
The controversy around this ghost story has never been resolved. If it is a hoax, it has the distinction of being one of the best researched of all time! If you're interesting in reading An Adventure for yourself, you can do so by clicking here.
I had dreamed of visiting Greece ever since high school when I first read The Iliad and The Odyssey. At the University of Arizona, my studies in art history compounded my fascination with ancient Greece. But for the time being, my experience with the country and its culture was confined to the descriptions and the washed out slideshow images offered by my professors. After graduation, I felt even more compelled to make it to these places which were, quite literally, the stuff of legends.
It would take many years, but I would finally make it to Greece.
If you're an American, it may be difficult to fully appreciate the aging grandeur of places like Greece. After all, recorded history on the North American continent is barely a footnote in the annals of humankind, and nothing in comparison to the millennia-old cultures of the Mediterranean, Europe, Africa and Asia. During my two weeks in Greece, I managed to make it to most of the important ruins like the Acropolis in Athens and the temples of Delphi. But one of the most significant sites for me wasn't a ruin at all, but a picturesque cove and a nearby cave hidden high on a scrub-covered hillside.
This half-moon-shaped inlet on the west side of the Peloponnese is called Voidokilia. Hidden from both the elements and human eyes by rolling sand dunes and craggy cliffs, its a perfect retreat for enjoying the sun and sea without enduring crowds of tourists.
There are no ruins at Voidokilia, but it doesn't matter because the very landscape is what's important. In ancient times – those times described by Homer in The Illiad and The Odyssey – this was a harbor for Nestor, King of Pylos. (A few miles to the north are the ruins of Nestor's Palace. You can visit there too – it's now a museum – and walk the nearby woods where the beehive-shaped tholos tombs of the ancient Mycenaeans are an unusual and somewhat eerie diversion.)
The sandy Voidokilia beach is where Odysseus's son, Telemachus, puts ashore accompanied by the goddess Athena while searching for his missing father. He finds the beach filled with revelers, as Nestor is hosting a feast in honor of Poseidon. Although the old king lavishly entertains young Telemachus, he cannot provide any new information about Odysseus's fate and suggests the youth continue his quest in Sparta. These passages from the Odyssey are important because they reinforce a major theme in the legend – fidelity to one's parents, partners and friends.
Above the cove is a cave. There aren't any signs leading to it and it's hard to see from the beach, but thanks to my guidebook, I was prepared. I hiked up a steep sandy berm on the south end of the cove, which was the most strenuous part of the journey and somewhat akin to sifting powdered sugar with my feet. I then made my way across the back of a scrub-covered ridge, pausing to photograph both the cove and the Ionian Sea to the west. On the summit above me were the ruins of a 13th century Frankish fortress commonly known as The Old Pylos Castle. The cliff-tops were also used in Classical times as a naturally defensible area which overlooked the bay. The cave doesn't have quite as illustrious a history as the beach and ruins nearby. According to legend, this is where Nestor sheltered his cattle during bad weather. It held a similar purpose for me, providing a cool resting spot after my hike through 100-degree weather.
The cave was unremarkable, a dry egg-shaped cavity which smelled faintly of wet earth. Certainly it will never be mentioned in the same breath with contemporaneous sites like Mycenae or Troy. The main room seemed large enough to hold a small herd of cattle, and I couldn't help but imagine the noise and smell this would've produced. As I exited, I found Homer's ancient world neatly framed by the mouth of the cave. The brilliant blue curve of Voidokilia... the flat scrubby plain of the Greek countryside... The low foothills where Nestor's crumbled palace still lay... It all stretched out in front of me. There were no throngs of tourists and the only sounds were the wind and the surf far below. Standing there, I felt more connected to Greece than I had anywhere else on my journey.
Probably you won't find Voidokilia in most Greek travel guides. It's not particularly close to any tourist destination and the road in is an unmarked and meandering route. But if you can find it, plan to spend some time. Sunbathe, snorkel, take a picnic... but also climb the hillside to the cave and reflect on the great legends this place inspired.