What has religion given us, other than annoying weekly obligations and the occasional century of war? Quite a lot, actually. You might have heard, for example, of all the scientific advances that came thanks to religious folk, and other advances have even more religious roots, coming directly from ceremonies originally considered sacred. Some of these advances were hokum. Some were cool. And some were delicious ...
If you've been hearing vaguely about chiropractors your whole life, you might assume they're a kind of doctor. They didn't go in for one of those super sexy specialties like brain surgery, but they're medical doctors all the same, like a podiatrist, only for your back. They aren't. Chiropractic (that's the formal word for "stuff chiropractors do") is a form of alternative medicine. That means we recognize and regulate it to keep untrained people from leaving hapless patients paralyzed, but no one involved has a medical degree, and we aren't sure the treatment does much of anything.
And unlike many forms of alternative medicine, chiropractic isn't some ancient tradition or an import from another culture. It's the brainchild of one man, a 19th-century beekeeper named Daniel David Palmer. D.D. Palmer was, based on much of beliefs, what we would today refer to as a quack. He tried to heal people by manipulating their magnetic fields, and he strongly opposed vaccination. He didn't believe in germs at all, instead hailing spinal posture as the secret to both physical health and an enhanced intellect.
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The art of chiropractic, said Palmer, had been revealed to him by one Dr. Jim Atkinson -- a man who, Palmer freely admitted, had died 50 years previously. Atkinson had returned as an "intelligent spiritual being" from "the other world" to teach about this new field, which wasn't just physical therapy but a religious system that prepares people for both this world and the next. Palmer saw himself as "the fountain head" of this burgeoning faith, imagining people would look back at him as a religious founder on the level of Jesus or Muhammed.
Instead, Palmer found himself running into difficulties, such as being thrown in prison for practicing medicine without a license. He died in 1913, and California continued to arrest his disciples for the same offense, until a 1922 law allowed chiropractors to offer treatment on the grounds of freedom of religion. They could even legally call themselves doctors (they are "doctors of chiropractic," if not of medicine). The AMA railed against chiropractic, calling it an unscientific cult, but it's still around today. You can try your luck with a chiropractor if you suffer from back pain. Just don't count on it to save your soul -- or, like some chiropractors claim, to cure your asthma or autism.
We're not sure it's possible to make ventriloquism any creepier than it already is today. But it was at least a little weirder back when people thought the strange voices were coming from ventriloquists' stomachs rather than out their deceptively motionless lips. "Ventriloquism" literally means "talking from the tummy." As does the other Greek name from ventriloquism, gastromancy, even though that word sounds more like it refers to some magical, elaborate, taboo form of food preparation.
So, if the earliest ventriloquists weren't stage performers but genuinely had voices coming out their belly buttons, what was the cause behind this strange phenomenon? Divine intervention of course, said the ventriloquists, and people believed them because that was a satisfactory explanation for just about everything mysterious in those days. There were spirits in the ventriloquist's stomach, and the ventriloquist could ask them questions. In the first century, Greece had a cult of belly prophets, led by the oracle Eurycles of Athens.
A thousand years later, and ventriloquists were still emitting magic navel farts, and thanks to monotheism, people were more likely to attribute the voice to God Himself rather than unspecific spirits. And if it weren't God, well, then the voices had to be those of demons. Witch-hunters noted that their quarries were often ventriloquists, now also known as pythonists (a title that describes soothsayers, as well as coders and parselmouths). The best tool against these demon-possessed witches was prayer.
People largely stopped believing in supernatural ventriloquism by the 18th century thanks to debunking campaigns, including one 500-plus-page French book called Le Ventriloque, Ou, L'Engastrimythe ("engastrimythe" is yet another ridiculous ventriloquist synonym). Ventriloquists continued throwing their voices but now as entertainers instead of prophets. For a while, they pretended the sounds came from unseen speakers in the corners of the room, but then they upgraded their acts by switching to wooden dummies. These dummies, unfortunately, really were possessed by bona fide demons, and to this day, they survive by consuming human souls.
Here are two things you probably know about foie gras: The process for creating it is complicated and bizarre, and the people who eat it are fancy and rich. The process involves force-feeding geese like a cartoon character for ages till their livers grow huge, the cost of said process making the food so expensive. The rich people are diners at French restaurants who drink fine wine with their meals while getting fanned by the poor.
Given all that, you might be surprised when we tell you that the pioneers behind foie gras weren't rich at all and had very little means for gastromancy -- they were slaves making their way across the globe. There are some records of people producing foie gras back in ancient Egypt and Rome, but it came to the modern world and France and Germany through Jewish migrants, who had been slaves back in Egypt and Rome and who weren't actually having the best time even after getting the hell out of there.
They didn't make the stuff for the decadent taste but just because they needed fat to cook with. Most people in those days used beef fat, which was available in huge quantities, but you couldn't eat beef fat under Kashrut, Jewish dietary law. You couldn't use butter, the other obvious choice, because you couldn't mix meat and dairy. So they used schmaltz -- poultry cooking fat -- and it just so happened that fatty duck liver was a great source for schmaltz. Making foie gras was hard back then and involved blinding the bird and nailing its feet down, but that was the cost of keeping kosher.
The real irony is that kosher regulations otherwise often minimize animal cruelty. For example, though you can't stun the animal before slaughtering it, you do have to cut its neck quickly and cleanly, which should make things as painless as possible. But foie gras has now got a reputation, fairly or not, for being the worst kind of animal torture. This was why Israel, the biggest producer of foie gras in the world after France and Hungary at the turn of the century, went and banned foie gras nationwide. You can always make schmaltz without liver, you see. Or just use Crisco.
Camping can be an amazing trip, but some people just can't see the appeal. Lying down on the dirt beneath a flap of nylon? You work hard to pay rent so you don't have to sleep outside, and now when you get a little free time, you're supposed to go and ... sleep outside? You're not even going on some crazy safari adventure, hoping to see some lions or something. You're just shivering in the woods. We built houses because we didn't like that sort of thing.
Now imagine how hard a tough of a sell it was for someone who'd never heard of it before.
In the mid-19th century, camping wasn't really a thing. People knew the word, but camps were traditionally something the military set up out of necessity when at war. You also had pioneers and explorers making camp but that's because they were venturing into the unknown long-term. Going into the outdoors for a couple days then returning home wasn't many people's idea of a sane leisure activity.
One book turned camping into a widespread hobby in America: 1869's Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks by William Murray, a Connecticut minister. Murray first experienced the outdoors as a kid hunting and fishing, but he also came to appreciate spending days out there just chilling. He wrote about his experiences in a series of humorous essays, which turned into a guide book. It sold loads, possibly hundreds of thousands of copies. The handful of hunters and fishermen in the Adirondacks were soon swarmed by thousands of first-time campers, and the hobby spread from there to the rest of the country -- and the world.
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People were drawn by Murray's humorous essays because the humorous essay is of course the highest form of art. But the real revelation in his book was his claim that camping is a pilgrimage that brings you closer to God. The city's noise and filth are terrible for your spiritual health. To escape all that, said Murray, the virtuous pilgrim must flee and "amid the silence of the woods hold communion with his Maker." This is especially true if you worship the Roman fire god Vulcan, who will help you roast s'mores.
Cynics, surrender: Hawaiian luaus are not goofy pantomimes put on for tourists but are authentically a tradition going back centuries. Only, luaus used to be a little different. In the old days, when they were called 'aha'aina, they were governed by kapu, the prohibitions of the Hawaiian religion. The Hawaiian religion, by the way, doesn't appear to have any specific name beyond "Hawaiian religion." We guess you don't really need any name more specific than "religion" if there's only one religion around.
Kapu restricted everyone, and it especially restricted women. Four times a month, they were banned from canoeing (true torture) and from having sex with men (no specific prohibition on sex with each other). Pregnant women had to move away till they gave birth. And there were a whole special set of kapu regulations regarding eating. Men and women had to sit separately at 'aha'aina. You probably associate luaus with suckling pigs, but women couldn't eat pork, which was reserved for men and gods. Nor could they eat bananas or coconuts, pretty much ruling out all remaining stereotypical island foods, or poultry, turtles, sharks, or a bunch of kinds of fruit. On special occasions, they would allowed to eat dog.
All kapu violations shared a common penalty: death. But during times of mourning, kapu was suspended. One of these times of absolute chicken-eating anarchy happened following the death of King Kamehameha in 1819, and after a little while had passed, Kamehameha II became the new chief and figured it was time he restored kapu. His mother Keopuolani and wife Ka'ahumanu said, eh, how about you not. So Kamehameha II went for a soul-searching boat trip with his bros then came back to attend a luau. He dramatically sat down with the women. Word spread throughout the land that kapu was permanently abolished!
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And so came a time of peace and quality? Not quite. The immediate reaction was all-out war. Factions fought in battle. Statues to the gods all burned. Nearly every temple in Hawaii was razed and the entire religion collapsed, to the point that when Christian missionaries showed up, the local religion had already fallen so out of favor that people were happy to outlaw it altogether, even briefly banning hula dancing. C'mon, guys. You don't have to choose between hula dancing and universal bananas. You can have both. You can have both.