The Ambassadors & Anamorphosis

The illusion hidden in the middle of an art masterpiece

In 1526 German painter Hans Holbein the Younger went to England in search of work. Eventually he found a client in Anne Boleyn (wife number 2 of Henry the VIII, and mother of Elizabeth I). By 1535 he was the King’s painter, creating portraits and documenting courtly life. It was through this life at court that he came to paint one of his most famous works, the double portrait of French ambassador Jean de Dinteville and French bishop Georges de Selve titled The Ambassadors.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein

Painted in 1533, The Ambassadors is a meticulously detailed masterpiece of Renaissance art. At the time it was painted, Henry VIII was separating the English Church from the Catholic Church of Rome, and these two ambassadors were most likely trying to resolve this political & religious turmoil. Filled with symbolism and hidden messages, the painting is more than just a double portrait. Between the two men is a table crowded with objects. On the top shelf are instruments to study the skies and on the lower shelf are items associated with the Earth and human activity. The lute with a broken string, the book of mathematics opened to division, and the hymn book are all references to the political & religious discord taking place at the time.

It’s what’s below the bottom shelf that makes this painting especially famous. With the top shelf representing the heavens, the bottom shelf representing life, then what is this thing below that? When viewed head-on it is a long diagonally shaped blob that looks out of place in this very life-like painting. However, when viewed by standing at the edge of the painting’s frame (or tilting your device), through a distortion of space, it is revealed to be a skull. The skull as a reminder of death completes the three levels of the center of the painting with the heavens, life, and finally death. It is also interesting that death exists amongst life but can’t be seen properly. It can only be viewed when you can no longer view the rest of the painting (when you can no longer view life).

Through anamorphosis the warped image in the center of the painting is revealed to be a skull when viewed from the right perspective.


The skull at the center of The Ambassadors is one of the most famous examples of anamorphosis. In anamorphosis an image can only be properly seen from a certain point of view, or with the aid of a special device (such as a mirrored cylinder), or sometimes both. It’s an illusion where you start not understanding and then move into understanding. Unlike normal optical illusions or trope l’oeil which can be understood (albeit mind bendingly) at face value, anamorphosis can only be understood when viewed the right way.

It’s a neat optical trick that has been used in various ways for millennia. The technique goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, but it really came into being in the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci included an early example in the illusion known known as Leonardo’s Eye. It was also used at times with tromp l’oeil to create more elaborate church ceilings. This was the case when Andrea Pozzo painted a “dome” on the ceiling of Saint Ignatius’s in Rome because the church builders were not allowed to construct an actual dome. So if you stand in the right spot the illusion of looking up into a dome is excellent, but from any other angle the illusion breaks down.

Saint Ignatius’s in Rome has a fake dome done through anamorphosis and trope l’oeil.
Anamorphic street art for Twin Peaks
Leon Keer’s anamorphic street art of Pac-Man
Thomas Quinn’s anamorphic type art.

Today we find anamorphosis in fun street art. Sidewalks become filled with precarious holes or cliff faces that confuse our sense of space. Artist Jonty Hurwitz creates anamorphic sculptures including a three dimensional version of the skull from Holbein’s The Ambassadors. In practical usage we experience anamorphosis most frequently while driving. Words written in the road are elongated but look correct from the vantage point of a seated driver. Similarly emergency vehicles such as ambulances frequently have words written backwards, but when seen from a driver’s mirror they read correctly.

Jonty Hurwitz’s anamorphic 3-D skull version of The Ambassadors
Jonty Hurwitz’s anamorphic 3-D frog that is revealed using a mirrored cylinder

Added bonus: There is a great video by The National Gallery in London where Deputy Director and Director of Public Engagement Susan Foister discusses The Ambassadors and some of its hidden messages.

Identity Crisis by Michael Murphy uses anamorphosis for political commentary.

The Missing Children of Hamelin

It is very likely the Pied Piper is based on real events

The basic story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is that in 1284 the Medieval German town of Hamelin had a rat problem. A stranger came to town who claimed that, by playing music on his magic pipe, he could lure the rats to the Weser river and rid the town of its problem. He did so and afterwards when he came to collect his payment the town decided they weren’t going to pay the agreed amount. The piper exacted his revenge by using his pipe to lure 130 children of Hamelin away from the town where they were never heard from again. As fairy tales go it’s pretty … grim.

In the early 19th century this version of the story was recorded by the Grimm Brothers of Germany who documented various Germanic fairy tales that were part of the oral storytelling tradition. Unlike most of their fairy tales however, the curious thing about the Pied Piper is that it seems to be only partially fictional.

Not a normal fairy tale

For being a fairy tale, one of the first curious things about the Pied Piper of Hamelin is that it takes place in a real town, not a fictional location. Also, unlike the standard “a long time ago” or some other vague time frame, this story very specifically took place in 1284. Before the Grimm version, the earliest documented version of this story is in the stained glass windows of the church of Hamelin around 1300. The church was destroyed in 1660 but details of the church, its windows, and the story of the missing children were, by then, documented in several places. The Hamelin records of 1384 say that, for reasons not specified, 130 children of Hamelin left in 1284 and never returned.

What happened to the children of Hamelin?

While the stained glass windows documented the loss of Hamelin children they never mentioned a piper. The earliest documentation of a piper is the Lueneburg Manuscript of 1440-50. So for over a hundred years the story may have had no piper, just missing children.

At face value the idea that a piper used music to lure rats & children out of town is unlikely. That said there were instances of dancing mania in the Middle Ages, where groups of people would just start dancing as in some sort of mass psychogenic illness. Perhaps a musician initiated some mania that led the children away.

Another theory involves the rats and that the children may have died from bubonic plague or some other infection spread by rats. Here the piper goes from being a musician or magician, to becoming a rat catcher. This theory is unlikely though because, to start, why would a disease only kill the children the town and not the adults as well? More importantly, the rats didn’t become a part of the story until 1559. So for almost 300 years the story had already been told without rats.

Still another theory is that the children left on the failed Children’s Crusade of 1212 where children of Germany & France were said to have set out for the Holy Land to try and peacefully convert the Muslims to Christianity. The piper in this case would have been someone whose job was to recruit children to join the crusade. Then the children never returned because they were sold into slavery. But because of the differences in years, and that the Children’s Crusade is riddled with fictional details and inaccuracies, it seems unlikely like that this is the explanation for the missing children of Hamelin.

Perhaps the most likely explanation is found in German colonization efforts. By the 13th century there was a push to have Germanic people move eastward to colonize more land from Poland down through Transylvania. The term “children” could have been meant more as “people of the town” rather than actual little kids. In this sense these were adults who moved away from Hamelin to settle new lands. The piper in this case could have been some loudly dressed smooth talking recruitment agent who came to town to sell people on the idea of emigration. This colonization theory is supported by a documented trail of late 13th century Hamelin family names appearing in Eastern European areas. Similarly, German place names start to become the names of towns in these areas around the same time.

So rather than a magical story of children being lured away from town by a mysterious piper, the reality may be that some citizens of Hamelin decided to leave and move eastward. As a way to remember these expatriate friends & families the town commemorated the loss in stained glass and in a story (a story that got confused and changed over the years). If only they had commemorated why they left.

Added info: “Pied” means “multicolored”, so he was a piper wearing somewhat eccentric/eye-catching multicolored clothes.

The Art Collection of Dorothy & Herbert Vogel

How an ordinary couple amassed one of the greatest art collections in history

Dorothy and Herbert Vogel began collecting art in the 1960s. Herb was a mail sorter at the post office and Dorothy was a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. With a passion for art they decided to live on Dorothy’s salary and use Herb’s salary (never more than $23,000 a year) to collect art. They lived frugally in a rent-controlled two room apartment in Manhattan, all the while amassing a collection of art that amounted to thousands of pieces.

Their collection is primarily modern, minimalist and conceptual art. Many of their pieces came from then lesser-known artists such as when they acquired pieces from Christo & Jeanne-Claude in exchange for taking care of the artists’ cat Gladys while they were away installing Valley Curtain in the early 1970s. The Vogels befriended many of the artists they bought from and gradually became known collectors in the art world. Chuck Close called them “the mascots of the art world.” Their collection became a who’s who of modern art.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel
Some of their collection in their apartment, later in a gallery
the Vogels with Christo & Jeanne-Claude

Ultimately the Vogels collection amounted to 4,782 pieces, all crammed inside their NYC apartment with the couple, their cats, and their turtles. Dorothy insisted they never stored work in their oven, but otherwise every other space seemed to contain art. After decades in the making they decided it was time to unload their collection and invite the public to experience it so in 1992 they donated the entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.. They chose the National Gallery because the museum is free to the public and never sells pieces in its collection. Similarly, the Vogels never sold any of the art in their collection, a collection conservatively estimated to be valued in the millions of dollars.

In 2008 they worked with the National Gallery and ran a program where they donated 50 pieces to a museum in each of the 50 states. The 2008 documentary Herb & Dorothy documents their world famous collection, the collection of two working class art fans who loved art for art’s sake.

Sea Monsters on Maps

The rise and fall of map sea monsters

Between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance exotic sea creatures were sometimes included in the watery regions of world maps. Many of the monsters were hybrid creatures – the top half was some land animal combined with the bottom half of a fish. This was in keeping with a long held idea from the ancient Greeks that anything on land had an aquatic counterpart in the sea. Sea rams, sea elephants, sea pigs, sea humans were all real possibilities. Over the centuries as explorers and traders traveled further abroad, they brought back tales of other strange creatures from around the oceans. Some of these beasts turned out to be real animals (such as whales) but others were just mistaken identity or entirely fictional stories. Either way, they ended up in maps.

Two kinds of maps

Generally speaking there were two kinds of maps in use during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: nautical maps and general maps of the world (mappae mundi). Nautical maps were more utilitarian and typically did not include sea monsters as it cost extra to include them and the illustrations were generally not very useful when sailing a ship. As such, most of the maps that included sea monsters were world maps for home use to learn about the world beyond your home town/city and the possible dangers at the borders of our knowledge.

Sea monsters were frequently found at the edges of the map which showed that the world beyond what had been mapped was unknown & possibly dangerous. They illustrated in a real sense the wonders of the world. They were also a way to hide gaps in the cartographer’s knowledge by taking up space with big animal illustrations (rather than big empty areas). Sea monsters also helped the marketability of these maps which was good for business.

A detail of a 1587 map of Iceland by Abraham Ortelius
A detail from the 1539 Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus
Another detail from the 1539 Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus

Eventually, the more sailors traveled the oceans the further out on maps the sea monsters were pushed. By the end of the 16th century much more of the globe had been explored & documented. The scientific knowledge of the flora & fauna of the world had grown and started to disprove some of these sea monsters. The more we learned, the unknown corners of the world in which to place these fantastical monsters eventually disappeared. By the 17th century instead of sea monsters on the margins there were illustrations of whales, other real life animals, or ships. This left us with more accurate, if a bit less interesting, maps of the seas.

Added info: Some sea monsters were included with ulterior motives. It is believed that Olaus Magnus’s 1539 map of Scandinavia included sea monsters in the Norwegian Sea to scare away potential foreign fisherman, and thereby protect the waters for the local fishing industry. A very Scooby Doo villain plan.

For more sea monsters, check out Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps.

Saddam Hussein’s Romance Novel

Zabibah and the King is a romance novel written by Saddam Hussein

When former president/dictator of Iraq Saddam Hussein wasn’t busy ruling/committing genocide, he found time for the arts. Between 2000-2003 he published four historical novels, all fiction, all written either by Saddam or written by ghostwriters under his direction. Three of the novels take place in the distant past of Iraq while 2002’s Men and the City takes place in the near past telling a fictionalized history of Saddam’s relatives fighting the Turks.

Zabibah and the King

It is 2000’s Zabibah and the King that is of particular interest. Zabibah and the King is a romance novel written by Saddam Hussein. On its surface the book is about King Arab of medieval Iraq, a beautiful commoner woman named Zabibah, and Zabibah’s abusive husband. The book is written as if an elderly woman is telling the story to a group of children, but there are large sections where Saddam is clearly airing his personal grievances that seem out of place if an elderly woman is telling them to children. As for the plot, when the King and Zabibah meet they mostly just talk about political theory, religion, and the best way to rule a country.

Eventually the abusive husband gets jealous that his wife is spending so much time with the King. He exacts his revenge by raping Zabidah and eventually teams up with the ruler of an enemy kingdom to wage war on King Arab. In the end Zabibah and her husband die in battle against one another, King Arab dies later, and when he dies he leaves the kingdom in the hands of a democratic council (which had been Zabibah’s idea) and the country prospers. Oh and also there is a whole section about bestiality between a bear and a herdsman which, again, is supposedly being told by an old woman to children.

Thinly veiled is the fact that Zabibah and the King is an allegory. The King represents Saddam himself, Zabibah is the people of Iraq, Zabibah’s rapist husband is the United States, and the enemy kingdom who help to wage war is Israel. Also the bear involved in the bestiality might represent Russian forces in some way. The book is Saddam laying-out his worldview, it’s about the United States’ 1991 invasion of Iraq during the Gulf War, and ultimately it’s a soapbox for Saddam to complain about things.

The book is not good but “remarkably” it was a bestseller in Iraq. Also Saddam used a 1998 painting titled The Awakening by Jonathon Bowser for the book cover, but never got permission from the artist.

Added info: Be sure to check out Saddam’s Goodreads author profile for more of his work and a very generous biography of him. Also there is a great Behind the Bastards episode on Saddam and his erotic literature.

“Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better”

The 11 word psychotherapy mantra of the early 1920s that actually sort-of works

Émile Coué was born in Troyes, France in 1857. He became a pharmacist and when handing out prescriptions he noticed that when he praised the efficacy of a medication to patients, the patients tended to respond better to their treatment. He found that the patients who got this pep talk tended to do better than the patients who did not, despite both groups taking the same drug. Today we call this the placebo effect but for Coué it demonstrated the incredible power of our imagination and how it can manifest itself in our conscious reality. This was the beginning of his journey into psychotherapy, hypnotism, and autosuggestion.


Coué believed that our unconscious mind governs all of our thoughts. He believed that our willpower always yields to our imagination. If you are trying to quit smoking but your mind is imagining the good feelings of smoking, you’ll be in self-conflict and the imagination will win. Therefor you have to change what you are imagining, you have to make your imagination think negative thoughts towards cigarettes, then quitting will be easier. He felt the road to conscious change was to first change the imagination, to change the unconscious.

To change the unconscious he developed a psychological technique he called autosuggestion. In autosuggestion you give a self-induced idea to, well, yourself, in the attempt to try and change something about your life. He saw it as a way to recondition the mind and in particular the unconscious. Left alone, your unconscious can develop negative thoughts that can persist unchecked for years affecting your mental and even physical health. Coué felt that with simple conditioning you could reprogram your mind and thereby improve your quality of life.

To help people use autosuggestion he created the The Coué method. He told patients to repeat a phrase twenty times just before falling asleep at night and twenty times just when waking up in the morning, in the hypnagogic and the hypnopompic states of semi consciousness. It is in these states that we are particularly susceptible to suggestion. The phrase Coué gave his patients to repeat was:

“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”

Coué opened up a clinic in Nancy, France where he taught this method to tens of thousands of patients free of charge. In the 1920s he documented his method and published Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion which became an international bestseller. The simplicity of his method was in stark contrast to other psychoanalysis methods of the time. Here was something you could do for free, on your own, in just a few minutes each day. It created a Coué craze. He was written about in the papers, he spoke to excited sold out lecture halls around Europe and the United States, and his 11 word mantra was used in advertisements, on bracelet medallions, and included in songs.

So, does it work?

His ideas weren’t without critics. For some it was just too simple to be real. To others it sounded too mystical and not based in science. In response to this criticism Coué specified that his method of improvement only works within the realm of reality. If you’re blind you can’t change your unconscious mind as a way to gain sight. You also have to be open to the idea of change. If you judgmentally throw up a wall at the start of the process it will never work.

That said there is scientific evidence that supports his ideas. Harvard Medical has shown that not only does the placebo effect work but incredibly it can work even when you know you are taking a placebo. It’s the unconscious mind affecting the body even when you are fully aware of the trick being pulled. Further, in 2014 Harvard published a study showing how patients responded better to a medication when they were given positive information about it, just like what Coué did almost a hundred years ago. The Rosenthal-Jacobson study of 1968 demonstrated the Pygmalion effect where teachers were told a group of randomly selected students had above-average ability. This affected the teachers’ behavior who then paid more attention to the students which resulted in those students performing better on IQ tests. Otherwise ordinary students who were given positive messages & made to feel special actually did better than they would have otherwise.

Added info: Even though Coué-mania mostly died out shortly after he died in 1926, his mantra has carried on. You can find a nod to Coué and a modified version of his mantra in the Beatles’ 1967 Getting Better. It also shows up again later in John Lennon’s 1980 Beautiful Boy.

The Beatles’ Getting Better has a modified method of the Coué method.

Dante’s Hell

Dante’s fictional ideas of Hell are largely responsible for what most people think of as Hell.

Completed in 1320, the Divine Comedy is a long narrative poem by Italian Dante Alighieri. It is divided up into three sections:

  • Inferno / Hell
  • Purgatorio / Purgatory
  • Paradiso / Paradise

Making himself the protagonist, the Divine Comedy tells the story of Dante’s journey to the underworld (Hell) and his eventual ascent to paradise (Heaven). It’s the first installment of this story, Inferno, that most people are familiar with. Inferno follows Dante down through nine very organized levels of Hell where each level down is for more terrible sinners. In the lowest level of Hell we find the devil along with the very worst sinners (those guilty of treachery).

What is Hell?

The Bible is fairly silent in regards to describing Hell. The specific word “Hell” is nowhere in the Bible. As far as a place in the afterlife full of punishment & suffering, the Old Testament doesn’t have one. The Old Testament has Sheol but everyone goes there – the good and the bad. It isn’t until the New Testament that a place of damnation is established with a few sketchy details. When someone dies, if they were righteous their name is in the book of life and they get eternal reward in Heaven. Those who don’t make the cut get a one-way trip to suffering city. While not given a name we’re told that this place has an unceasing fiery lake, that there is gnashing of teeth, and eternal suffering. There aren’t many more details than that. Enter, Dante’s Inferno.

Botticelli painting of the Inferno

Pop culture Hell

Dante’s Inferno creatively fills in the blanks left by the scant Hellish details of the Bible. For starters, Dante puts Hell underground (which is never specified in the Bible). The idea that there are different kinds of punishments for different kinds of sins is also invented by Dante. Similarly, the idea that there are different levels of Hell, each more awful than the previous, is also his literary creation. Interestingly Buddhism has places in the afterlife for punishment that are a lot closer to Dante’s idea of Hell than anything Christianity has ever created.

In the Inferno’s ninth and lowest level of Hell Dante finds Satan, but the Bible never says Satan is in Hell. Similar to the idea of Hell, Satan isn’t created/introduced until the New Testament. Satan’s origin story is convoluted with lots of retconning, but one way or another Satan is cast out of Heaven and sent down to Earth where he must live until the second coming of Jesus. Only on Judgement Day will he be cast down into what we now call Hell as a final punishment. Until then Satan is presumably wandering the Earth, causing trouble, but he is certainly not ruling Hell as we tend to think of him. Further, Dante depicts Satan as a giant monstrous beast with 3 faces and large bat like wings. It makes for a scarier story, but none of it is in the Bible. Of course if Satan could have at one point been a beautiful fallen angel, but also have potentially been a serpent, maybe he could also turn into a monster. The Bible is silent on the potential shape-shifting super powers of Satan.

Gustave Doré etching of Satan in the Inferno

Ultimately, when we think of Satan ruling over the administration of various punishments in a stalactite & stalagmite cavernous underground Hell we are thinking of the influence of Dante’s Inferno. None of this is in the Bible. After hundreds of years and untold number of other works of fiction, what we think of as Hell is more influenced by popular culture than the Bible. Add to this that most people have never read the Bible, and it’s easy to see how Dante has done more for Hell than scripture.

Added bonus: Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in the Florentine Tuscan dialect of Italian instead of Latin (which would have been the literary language of the time). Because it was written in the language of the people, the Divine Comedy was more accessible to more people which only increased its popularity. This helped popularize the Florentine Tuscan dialect of Italian which eventually became the standard Italian language that we know today.

Venomous vs Poisonous

Venomous species are aggressively toxic while poisonous species are defensively toxic.

The difference between things that are venomous and things that are poisonous is a difference of evolutionary strategies. It’s a difference of offense vs defense, actively toxic vs passively toxic.


Venomous species use an active strategy to inflict toxins. As such they always have some sort of toxin delivery system such as fangs, barbs, stingers, spurs, etc as a way to inject their venom. Predators use venom to incapacitate their prey to various degrees.


Poisonous species defensively pass on their toxins when they are touched or eaten. This passive approach is why toxic plants are categorized as poisonous because … well, most plants don’t actively move around trying to attack prey. As for poisonous animals the poison is frequently secreted through their skin as in the case of the poison dart frog (who got their name because their poison was sometimes used by indigenous tribes of Central/South America to make poisonous blowdarts).

Poisonous species use their toxin to deter predation. Sometimes a predator only needs to be poisoned once to learn to never attack that poisonous species again. For others, a particular poison doesn’t leave the predator with the option of a second attack as it results in death.

In Short:

  • Venomous: when something toxic bites/touches you
  • Poisonous: when you bite/touch something that is toxic

Added info: While generally mutually exclusive, there are a few species that are both venomous and poisonous. One example is the Tiger Keelback snake (Rhabdophis tigrinus) of East Asia. It has fangs to inject toxin but more frequently it employs a defensive strategy and stores toxin in nuchal glands. Any predator that bites into the snake’s neck will be poisoned. The toxin they use for either strategy is not produced by the snake, but rather it’s acquired by eating poisonous toads.

The Tiger Keelback is both venomous and poisonous

Dog Days of Summer

When the dog star Sirius rises with the morning sun, it marks the most uncomfortable time of summer.

The “dog days of summer” are traditionally some of the hottest most uncomfortable days of the year (running more or less from July 3 through August 11 in the northern hemisphere). The ancient Greeks associated this time with heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, and bad luck.

They are called the “dog days” because it’s at this time the star Sirius (which is actually a binary two star system) begins to rise at dawn along with the sun. Sirius is known as the “dog star” and is a part of the constellation Canis Majoris (Latin for “Greater Dog)”, all of which puts the “dog” in the “dog days”. It was thought that the morning appearance of Sirius, which is otherwise the brightest star in the night sky, added extra heat to the days making them more uncomfortable.

Potential spoiler: Sirius being the dog star is also the hidden-in-plain-sight reference with the character Sirius Black in Harry Potter, whose animagus ability is to turn himself into a dog.

Girl Scout Cookies

Most Girl Scout cookies go by two names because the cookies are made by two different bakeries.

The Girl Scouts of the USA were formed in 1912 as an organization for young girls to learn skills and build friendships. As a fundraiser in 1917 the Mistletoe Troop of Muskogee, Oklahoma began selling homemade cookies. Selling cookies was so successful troops nationwide began to do the same. In 1936 the Girl Scouts organization began to use commercial bakeries to produce the cookies more efficiently that the scouts would then sell, which is how it’s still done today.

Depending on where you are in the United States, your cookies are made by one of two commercial bakeries:

  • ABC Bakers (a division of the Canadian corporation George Weston Limited), or
  • Little Brownie Bakers (a division of the Italian Ferrero Group)

Because of the two bakeries the cookies have different recipes and different names. As a result, what some know as Samoas, others know as Caramel deLites. What some know as Tagalongs, others know as Peanut Butter Patties. The newer cookies retain the same name regardless of bakery, as does the classic Thin Mint. As for the most popular Girl Scout cookie, at 25% of sales, it’s Thin Mint.

A comparison of just some of the cookie names between the two bakeries

Also: The Girl Scout logo is framed in a shape known as a trefoil (basically three overlapping circles) but with an additional stylized tail at the bottom to emulate the look of clover. The Little Brownie Bakers have labeled their version of shortbread cookies Trefoils as a nod to this branding. In the ABC Bakers version of the cookie, named Shortbread, the cookies’ form is less trefoil and more quatrefoil as it is basically four overlapping circles.