It’s springtime in Prague, y’all — time for golems and hunts, puppies and weird gifts from your royal admirers. What, that’s only Diana? My bad.
“Tell us again about the unicorn’s horn. It is supposed to have miraculous curative powers.”
Writing for The Pharmaceutical Journal, William Jackson reports that the myth of the unicorn may have arisen from Alexander the Great, who adorned his war horse with golden horns for battle.
Other stories suggest that the myth of the unicorn arose from early reports of the rhinoceros, although, as Jackson reports, belief in the unicorn lasted well into the Renaissance. The belief in the medicinal properties of the unicorn horn likely began in the fifth century and persisted into Emperor Rudolf’s day — the unicorn horn allegedly neutralized poison, a tantalizing property for royals fearful of assassination attempts.
The most common medicinal use of the “unicorn horn” was either as a cup that removed poisons and toxins or as a powder to be mixed with other ingredients (pearl! Ivory! Whale bone! Here, royals! Have a drink full of rocky things!) to purify the body.
Because “unicorn horn” was so precious, there were lots of counterfeit items–the blog Early Modern Medicine reports that, in order to test the authenticity of a suspect horn, one should pass a spider over it. If the spider survived, you’d been had. If the spider exploded, you had the real thing. Good to know.
It’s an automaton, Jack,” Matthew said, picking the thing up. When he did, the stag’s head sprang open, revealing the hollow chamber within. “This one is meant to run down the emperor’s dinner table. When it stops, the person closest must drink from the stag’s neck.
In the Real-Time Reading Companion, Deb notes that the automaton Rudolf sends Diana is based on this one, which you can see on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
While the automaton on display at the Met was made around 1620, it’s likely that Rudolf II would have had something similar in his collection — his Kunstkammer, or Cabinet of Wonders, contained many fantastical and ingenious items. In fact, the Kunst Historiches Museum in Vienna boasts an automaton of Diana astride a centaur once owned by Rudolf II.
Rudolf’s collection survived the Thirty Years’ War by virtue of the fact that part of it was moved to Vienna, where it’s still on display.
“There goes Sigismund,” Gallowglass said, bending close to my ear. The noise from the bells was deafening, and I could barely hear him. When I looked at him in confusion, he pointed up, to a golden grille on the adjacent steeple. “Sigismund. The big bell. That’s how you know you’re in Prague.”
The Sigismund Bell hangs at the top of St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague. The church took over 600 years to complete—the last section was only finished in the 20th century. The construction of the Gothic cathedral ceased as a consequence of the Hussite Wars and the project was not completed until the millennial anniversary of Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia, in the 1930s. The popular history tells us that when the bell Sigismund was finished, no one knew how to lift the massive bell into the tower. Naturally, the princess devised a solution—by making a pulley of her own hair to lift the bell into place. Ouch. You can hear Sigismund’s peals in the video below. You can learn more about the architecture of St. Vitus (and the work of one Matthew of Arras, French architect (hmmm)) here.
Kelley nodded. “He came when Dee was still in Prague, asking questions about the book and nosing about in my business. Rudolf let him enjoy one of the witches from the Old Town—a seventeen-year-old girl and very pretty, with rosy hair and blue eyes just like your wife. No one has seen her since. But there was a very fine fire that Walpurgis Night. Gerbert was given the honor of lighting it.” Kelley shifted his eyes to me.
“I wonder if we will have a fire again this year?”
Walpurgis Night is a Northern European festival celebrating St. Walpurga that takes place on 30 April-1 May. While the festival has its roots in pagan rituals welcoming the spring and summer, St. Walpurga is remembered for denouncing sorcery and witchcraft. Traditionally, people believed that Walpurgis Night was the last night of the year that a witch could cast powerful spells before the autumn. In sixteenth century Ireland, people slaughtered hares on 30 April believing that they were cow-stealing witches in disguise. In Germany, people believed that witches roamed abroad on Walpurgis Night to participate in a great gathering on top of the Blocksberg mountains. Though I tried, I couldn’t find anything on whether people actually engaged in witch-hunting — but they definitely lit bonfires to ward off sorcery and spells.
After days of careful negotiation, Matthew was able to arrange a visit to Rabbi Judah Loew. To make room for it, Gallowglass had to cancel my upcoming appointments at court, citing illness.
Rabbi Judah Loew, “The Maharal,” was the spiritual leader of the Jewish community in Prague in the late sixteenth century. The Maharal was a great intellectual—in addition to establishing his reputation as a formidable Talmudic scholar in his early life, he was a friend of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler and had an expansive knowledge of mathematics and science. His knowledge endeared him to Emperor Rudolf II, who consulted him frequently (in the dead of night)
The name Maharal is a Hebrew acronym for Moreinu ha-Rav Loew, or “Our Teacher Rabbi Loew.” Legend has it that the Maharal used his knowledge of the Kabbala to animate the golem of Prague, a creature raised to protect the Jewish community from harm. According to this article from the New York Times, the symbolism of the golem re-emerges every so often—especially in times of trouble and uncertainty. To this day, people honor the legacy of Rabbi Loew by leaving stones on his grave in the Jewish cemetery of Old Town Prague.
We’ll pick up again with Matthew and Diana as they hunt with Emperor Rudolf on 8 April. In the meantime, be sure to catch A Discovery of Witches TV on BBC America and AMC TV when it premieres at 9pm on Sunday, 7 April! You can also vote in the last couple rounds of A Discovery of Witches TV March Madness between now and Sunday — check out our Twitter profile (@chamomilenclove) or our Facebook page to participate.
If you like what we do, consider leaving us a review on iTunes! We can’t wait to begin our book discussions of Book of Life with you on 14 April 2019!
Cait and Jen