Buddhism 101: The Reason This Buddhist Monk Self-Immolated Is Uncomfortably Familiar


In 1963, a Vietnamese monk committed self-immolation in front of hundreds of people. While his primary motivation was protest, the full reasoning behind his final act shed unexpected light on a deeply conflicted nation.

In the midst of the Vietnam War, South Vietnam was corrupted by religious intolerance. Although Buddhists comprised about 80% of the population, Ngo Dinh Diem, the newly-declared President of South Vietnam, was a Catholic who had decisively stripped the religious freedoms of Buddhists. This group was not allowed to fly their religious flags and were openly discriminated against by Catholics. Even though there were far fewer Catholics, they often held higher positions of power. 

The spring of 1963 saw numerous Buddhist protests, many of which were met with fierce resistance from the police and government. These clashes led to many fatalities – including those of children. 

This tension peaked on June 11, 1963, when an older monk named Thich Quang Duc performed a ritualistic ending to his own life in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection. He sat in the traditional lotus position as other monks poured gasoline over his head. After Duc uttered a Buddhist prayer, one of his colleagues lit a match and dropped it into his lap, engulfing him in flames.

The crowd that gathered was stunned by his act of martyrdom, and it was even captured by several Western journalists and photographers. The photos of the burning monk became an indelible image of the 1960s, and his final act of protest was a tipping point for the fight for religious tolerance in Vietnam.

The Monks Demanded Acceptance

Photo:  manhhai/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

President Diem’s discrimination of the Buddhist population pushed hundreds of monks to protest for change. In May of 1963, they presented the government with five demands, including proposed laws against religious discrimination and the freedom to fly whichever religious flags they chose.

The government had promised the monks a response, but Diem essentially ignored their requests. This silence from their government ultimately pushed the monks to much more drastic action to fight for their convictions.

A Journalist Captured Duc’s Utter Composure

Photo: Malcolm Browne for the Associated Press/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Duc prepared himself for his fiery demise with a steady, calm demeanor. David Halberstam, a journalist for the New York Times, was present for Duc’s immolation and wrote about the dramatic act:

“I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think… As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

As for Duc himself, he left his final words in a letter:

“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”

Duc’s Heart Did Not Burn

Photo:  manhhai/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

After Duc’s self-immolation was complete, the other monks placed robes over his body and carried him away in a makeshift wooden coffin. He was later re-cremated for a proper burial, but mysteriously, his heart did not burn and remained intact. 

Duc’s heart was placed on display in a glass container in the Xa Loi Pagoda and was seen as a sacred relic representing compassion.

JFK Addressed The Moment’s Deep Emotional Impact

Photo: Malcolm Browne/manhhai/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Once photographer Malcolm Browne sent his “monk on fire” photos to the Associated Press, they reached US newspapers within 16 hours. The Western reaction to the images was decidedly shocked, and President Kennedy was quoted as saying, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Browne was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the photograph.

The photos, in addition to the news of religious discrimination in Vietnam, supposedly led Kennedy to reexamine America’s policies and presence in the country, ultimately culminating in the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Other Monks Followed Suit

Photo: Richard W. Stewart/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Although Duc’s immolation is known as a pivotal moment in Vietnam’s fight for religious equality, his sacrifice did not instantaneously affect President Diem’s policies. Several other monks followed in Duc’s footsteps in the proceeding weeks, amid continued protests by the Buddhist community. 

In November of 1963, members of the South Vietnamese military assassinated Diem and his brother during a coup, ending his Catholic reign over South Vietnam.


Buddhism 101: Random and Super Interesting Things About Buddhism

For the unenlightened, Buddhism can certainly come across as a mysterious, even confusing, religion. After all, there is no singular deity watching over. No strict commandments to govern with. And no “great book” to live by. So, what is it exactly? And how does Buddhism uniquely define itself in comparison with other religions around the world? 

The answer is simple: Buddhism extends beyond the ideas of organized religion, and instead presents itself more as a philosophy of life, focusing on morality, tolerance for others, and wisdom. While others seek to contain (and, in some cases, even control) their members through scripture, followers of Buddhism are taught that individuality and finding one’s own self is the core of their practice. That through a journey of self-discovery, they will gain knowledge not only about themselves – but also about their inner spirit.

With over 2,500 years and 300 million followers behind it, Buddhism certainly has a colorful history, one which is shared all around the world. Below are some of the most interesting facts that have arisen from this unique practice. 

That Big Guy Is Not “the” Buddha

Photo:  Lydia Pintscher

You may be familiar with the sight of a rather large bald man, perched cross-legged, and adorned entirely in gold, and perhaps first wonder if this is also what Donald Trump sees when he closes his eyes. But second, you may recognize this as a statue of Buddha himself. 

Well, you’d be wrong on one-and-a-half counts. 

Turns out, the most recognizable symbol (at least, in Western cultures) of Buddhism is not actually of Buddha, but rather Budai, a zen monk who lived in China during the 900s. 

A practicer of Buddhism, Budai was considered such an eccentric and good-spirited figure of the religion that he eventually became its most recognizable face. It was said that Budai always wore a smile, and was so charismatic that he was actually followed by children wherever he went. Because of this, his spirit represented all of which Buddhism strives for, and, as a result, we know his face to be that of one truly enlightened.

Siddhartha Guatama Was the “Real” Buddha

Photo:  Public domain

The real Buddha, however, was a twenty-nine year-old man named Siddhartha Gautama of Lumbini. Born into wealth, Gautama eventually realized that none of his fortune satisfied him, and he took to studying various religions and meditation practices around the world, before eventually becoming “enlightened,” and ultimately founding Buddhism. 

Perhaps ironically, the name “Siddhartha” is Sanskrit for “He Who Achieves His Goal,” a concept which underlines the core intent of Buddhism. 

There Is No Divine Creator

Photo:  Public domain

Just imagine no one looking over your shoulder, checking for sins. No one whispering in your ear to do the right thing. Not having to answer to anyone on a Sunday morning. 

Such is the way with Buddhism, where there is no “divine creator” lording above. True, there is the concept of the human spirit that dwells within, but the idea is more in sync with our consciousness, rather than with an entity that will eventually make its way up to heaven and join one of many hypothetical “big guys upstairs.”  

Instead, Buddhism focuses on the journey of oneself to our own enlightenment rather than seeking the approval of a higher power.

Women Can Never Achieve True “Buddhahood”

Photo:  ShahJahan

When Buddhism first began, some of the Buddha’s teachings about women were very controversial. Not because he taught that women should be subservient to their husbands (as was the case with most early religions), but that husbands should also respect their wives. 

Furthermore, while women were certainly not excluded from the religion (and were actively encouraged to participate), there came some caveats, with the worst of all being perhaps the entire point of Buddhism in the first place:

Despite her dedication to the religion, a woman can never achieve true “Buddhahood.”

Sex Is Sometimes a Complicated Subject

Photo: Otgonbayar Ershuu

For a religion that encourages the exploration of one’s self, sex (both with a partner and without) surprisingly comes with some very serious rules. 

First of all, if you’re a Buddhist monk or nun (referred to as Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis, respectively), you better keep that inner temple to yourself because any act, including masturbation, prevents one from achieving supreme enlightenment. 

For the rest of practicing Buddhists, the rules aren’t quite as strict – though most of them are certainly frowned upon. Particularly because the Buddha perceived the craving for sex as a form of suffering. To that end, if one is consumed by the their sexual urges, they too will not be able to reach enlightenment. 

Not All Buddhists Are Focused on Reincarnation

Photo: Public domain

Among some of the more common misconceptions about Buddhism, are that all Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Such is not the case, as the belief in life after death is not focused on as much as one would believe. Instead, the focus lands mostly on one’s purpose in this life in order to become enlightened.  

Furthermore, there is a common belief that Buddhism originated as a Pagan religion, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason being, because Buddhists don’t worship a god in the first place. Thus, Paganism, which is the worship of any god besides the Christian one, is an entirely different practice. 

Alcohol, Onions, Garlic, Leeks, Chives, and Scallions Are a No-no

Photo: Public domain

Like sex, the desire to over-indulge in certain foods is seen as a form of craving, which is, ostensibly, a form of suffering. 

But there are also specific guidelines to follow if one wished to truly follow the path. Among them, followers cannot enjoy alcohol. While many who “over-indulge” in occasionally shot-gunning beers or knocking back tequila shots would argue they’re at their most enlightened when hammered, in Buddhism, it is seen as a form of “intoxicant,” which, again, keeps one from being truly spiritually enlightened. 

Also, say goodbye to Indian food, as onions, garlic, leeks, chives, and scallions are considered too strong of odors in Buddhist cuisine. The reason? Because their odors are thought to be so pungent, that they incite anger and passion – both of which fall under the umbrella of suffering in Buddhism. 

There is also a common misconception about all Buddhist being vegetarian, but this is not the case. In fact, many Buddhist dishes feature meat. The rule behind this, however, is that Buddhist are not allowed to “kill any sentient being.” That is, they are not allowed to kill the animal and eat it themselves, but procuring meat from elsewhere is perfectly fine.

There Are Four Noble Truths

Photo: Public domain

While the core of Buddhism is the journey to self-discovery and enlightenment, there are a few important items to understand along the way. Described as the “essence” of Buddhism, these are the Four Noble Truths:

  • The Truth of Suffering
  • The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
  • The Truth of the End of Suffering
  • And, finally, The Truth of the Path that Leads to the End of Suffering

Together, these represent the path to self-liberation. A way to understand the plight of all humanity, and that there are certain undeniable events in life that are out of our control – but there is always a way through them. And by understanding and accepting them, we are on our way to true enlightenmen

There Are Two Different Types of Buddhism

Photo: Cheongpeongsa | photo by Alan Chan

Spiritual beliefs can sometimes cause a divide among followers. It’s why there are countless iterations of Christianity around the world. Some of whom believe in the spiritual teachings of Christ’s love, others who think it somehow it pleases him to march along funeral processions holding up hateful and often-misspelled picket signs. 

Clearly, the spectrum reaches far and wide as to what being a “good Christian” means.

Thankfully with Buddhism, there are only two different practices: on one hand, there is the Theravada (“School of the Elders”), and the Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”). 

Theravada is perhaps the most common type of Buddhist practice, with the end goal of all individuals to reach a state of nirvana, which sees the inner spirit break the cycle of death and rebirth, and ultimately move on. 

In the case of Mahayana, an individual strives to achieve “Buddhahood” (supreme enlightenment), in which he or she remains in the cycle of rebirth with the intent of helping others become enlightened as well. 

In either following, the end goal of both types of Buddhism are to attain the highest level of spiritual connectedness. That is, once you peak, it’s time to either move on (Theravada) or pay it forward (Mahayana). 

A Full Moon Day Is Sacred

Photo: Pixabay

Every religion has their one uber-holiday of the year. For some it’s Christmas. Others Dwali. Some people give thanks on that magical day of the year when the McRib finally makes its triumphant return. 

Although Buddhism isn’t exactly a religion in the traditional sense, it’s not without its own special day to celebrate the spiritual journey that so many others are on. 

That day is called “Uposatha”, a day for the “cleansing of the defiled mind,” which falls in accordance of the four lunar phases, starting with the full moon. 

On Uposatha, Buddhist followers intensify their practice, reflecting on their goals to deepen their commitment to themselves and to others. 

There Is a Buddhism-Themed Amusement Park

Photo: By Hans Olav Lien – Own work/https://commons.wikimedia.org

Located just outside Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam is the one and only Buddhist theme park — the Suoi Tien Cultural Amusement Park. 

Featuring roller coasters, rides, an artificial beach and water park, Suoi Tien offers a glimpse of the true happiness and sense of contentment one could only achieve by, well, practicing Buddhism until they reach spiritual nirvana, I suppose.  

Swathed in bright neon colors, the park is said be akin to “Disneyland on acid,” which will certainly help to explain why you’ll encounter men and women dressed up as unicorns, dragons, and Budai himself as they roam around the park grounds. 

But the idea of a Buddhist theme park begs the question: if one has already achieved spiritual happiness prior to buying a ticket, does that make a roller-coaster ride less fun?

Viharas Are Sacred Places

Photo: Cherubino

Also known as Buddhist monasteries, viharas were originally created to help in housing monks who would often only stay in temporary shelters. These early forms were little more than rock-cut caves, carved along trade routes, and which allowed passing monks to reside in and practice their faith safely. 

As time went on however, viharas evolved into much more than just a place for wandering monks to stay, but instead became temples themselves, ones which saw the monks recruiting students who wished to learn more about Buddhism. 

While the process of constructing viharas has certainly improved, the architects behind them today still retain the aesthetics of those once carved into the rock of caves.

The Famous Tooth of Buddha

Photo: Public domain

According to Sri Lankan legend, when the Buddha himself died and was eventually cremated in 543 BCE, he left behind a small souvenir for his followers: his left canine tooth. 

It was said that whomever came into possession of the tooth had the right to rule the country. Thus, it was fought over many times, but ultimately ended up in the town of Kandy, Sri Lanka, where has been held in reverence on display for over four hundred years. 

The Fig Tree Holds a Special Meaning

Photo: www.pixabay.com

Specifically, the ficus religiosa, a type of fig tree that grows only in southwest China. It earned its divine name for a very specific reason: it was under this type of fig tree that Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) first achieved his spiritual enlightenment. Ever since, it has been regarded as sacred, and is a celebrated symbol in Buddhism. 

There Are Many Different Ways People Practice Buddhism

Photo: Public domain

Like many religions, Buddhists can choose to practice puja – the act of worship – either at home, via a personal shrine, or in a public temple. 

If at home, Buddhists create small areas dedicated to connecting with their faith. These shrines typically feature a statue of Buddha himself, as well as various candles, flowers, and incense burners.

Although the practice is a solitary one, Buddhists are never to worship at their shrine with their feet facing the Buddha. Such an act is considered disrespectful. 

If worshipping outside of the home, Buddhist will visit temples called Pagodas, which are vaulting, tower-like structures, or Stupas, which are wider, circular buildings.


650 officers and enlisted men of Auxiliary Remount Depot No. 326, Camp Cody, N.M., in a symbolic head pose of “The Devil” saddle horse ridden by Maj. Frank G. Brewer, remount commander / Photo by Almeron Newman, Rear 115 N. Gold Ave., Deming, N.M.


• 650 officers and enlisted men of Auxiliary Remount Depot No. 326, Camp Cody, N.M., in a symbolic head pose of “The Devil” saddle horse ridden by Maj. Frank G. Brewer, remount commander / Photo by Almeron Newman, Rear 115 N. Gold Ave., Deming, N.M.

• Creator(s): Newman, Almeron, photographer

• Date Created/Published: [Deming, N.M.] : [Almeron Newman], [1919]

• Medium: 1 photograph : gelatin silver print ; sheet 44 x 36 cm.

• Summary: Photograph shows formation of soldiers into the shape of a horse’s head.

• Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ds-11770 (digital file from original)

• Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.

• Access Advisory: Served by appointment only (Unprocessed). To make a request, see “Access to Unprocessed Materials,”(http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/info/022_unpr.html)

• Call Number: Unprocessed in PR 06 CN 193 [item] [P&P]

• Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

The Story Of The Man Who Died From Drinking Too Much Radium

Eben Byers was an amateur golfer, an alumnus of Yale, and a notorious ladies man, but he is most famous for literally rotting from the inside out after spending three years drinking radium-infused water.

When Byers fell and hurt his arm in 1927, he was prescribed Radithor, a radium-infused elixir sold by a quack doctor named William Bailey. Radithor was supposed to alleviate aches, pains, and even invigorate one sexually. Yet what happened to Byers fell far afield of the positive effects Radithor was supposed to have. Instead, after three years of incessant use, Byers began rotting from the inside. His teeth fell out; his jaw had to be removed; holes formed in his brain and skull; and he eventually perished in 1932 from radium poisoning. Like the ill-fated Radium Girls before him, Byers demonstrated the clear and unequivocal bodily evidence that exposure to radium was lethal.

Byers’s tragic death is a story of medical deception and overdose, and it serves as a cautionary tale that there is, in fact, too much of a good thing – especially if that good thing is actually completely lethal.   

“The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off”

Photo: BlueShift 12/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

This was the title of a Wall Street Journal article that came out some time after Byers’s passing, succinctly summing up what happened to him. In 1927, Byers was on a train returning from a Harvard-Yale football game when he fell from his bunk and hurt his arm. The pain didn’t go away, so Byers’s doctor prescribed him Radithor.  

Radithor was simply radium dissolved in water, marketed as a healing tonic. At a time when radium-infused products were very popular, it was unsurprising that Byers was more than happy to take Radithor. In fact, Byers was so keen on the product and its supposed benefits that he ended up drinking three bottles every day for two years, until the poison caught up with him and began dissolving him from the inside out. 

William Bailey, The Man Who Prescribed Byers Radithor, Was A Known Fraud

Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons/No Restrictions

William J.A. Bailey wasn’t a doctor, even though he claimed to be. He was a Harvard dropout who got rich quick after developing Radithor, a toxic solution of radium dissolved in water. He was a fraud who was repeatedly in trouble with the law and profited off numerous short-lived business start-ups.

The FDA shut down Bailey’s business, but Bailey had already done his damage. The amount of people who perished from Radithor is unknown, but he sold approximately 400,000 bottles of the tonic – 1,400 of which Byers himself purchased.

Byers Probably Took Radithor To Help His Performance In The Bedroom

Photo: Falk, NY/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The quick story is that Byers fell on a train, hurt his arm, took Radithor, and thought it made him better so he kept taking it. There is, though, perhaps another reason Byers was so enthusiastic about Radithor, to the point where he reportedly even gave cases of the stuff to his girlfriends and his race horses. 

Byers had a reputation as a ladies’ man. At Yale, his nickname was “Foxy Grandpa.” His fall on the train reportedly injured not only his arm, but also his game. Byers complained of a sort of “run-down feeling” that affected his athletic and sexual performance. That’s when Byers discovered a product on the market that claimed to solve all of these issues. The sexually reparative nature of Radithor was only rumored, but it is unsurprising that a man entering his 50s with a reputation for being popular with women would seek out anything to help him maintain his “Foxy Grandpa” status.  

Byers’s Horrific Death Ended The American Public’s Romance With Radium-Infused Products

Photo: Radior Cosmetics/New York Tribute Magazine/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The problem with touting radioactivity as curative was that it simply wasn’t true. Luckily, most of these quack elixirs were phony, and contained no radium at all (of course, this was not the case with Radithor). Still, there were myriad products on the market meant to be extremely good for you – there were radium-infused beauty creams, toothpastes, soaps, bars of chocolates – you name it.

The American public had an obsession with radium in the 1920s and ’30s that only faded after Byers’s passing brought the real dangers of radium to light.     

Byers’s Story Probably Got So Much Attention Because He Was A Handsome, Upper-Class Man

Photo: flickr/CC0

Eben Byers was the son of a well-known entrepreneur, and he was the chairman of his father’s steel company. He attended Yale, golfed, raced horses, and was popular with women. He was the perfect candidate for a tragic, newsworthy story – made even more fascinating and terrifying because he perished after drinking what was touted as a health tonic, completely available to the public. Everything about Byers’s story differs from the devastating story of the Radium Girls. 

The tragedy of the Radium Girls – female factory employees who became painfully sick and perished of radium poisoning – was well covered by the media, but was less compelling to the government than the story of Byers, a socialite in the public eye. It wasn’t until Byers told the Federal Trade Commission about Radithor, while on his deathbed, that radium was removed from the federally approved list of medicines.

The Idea To Drink Radioactive Water As An Elixir Came From The Restorative Powers Of Hot Springs

Photo: National Institute of Standards and Technology/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the 1920s, people knew about – and believed in – the healing powers of hot springs. When it was discovered that the water in hot springs was mildly radioactive, due to the radon gas dissolved in the water, it was concluded that it was the radioactivity that was so curative. In The American Journal of Clinical Medicine, Dr. C.G. Davis claimed, “Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.” It was no wonder products infused with radium, such as candy, hair tonics, and even blankets, were so popular.

However, radon gas is entirely different from radium, the element found in Radithor. Radon gas has a half-life of about three days – radium has one of 1,600 years. Seeing as Byers took three times the already toxic dose of Radithor, he was irrevocably doomed.      

Byers Deteriorated Rapidly and Painfully, But He Kept Drinking Radithor

Photo: Metaweb/GNU Free Documentation License

For the first two years Byers took Radithor, he was so pleased with the supposed results that he took three times the suggested daily dose. But, after a while, he began feeling sick. He lost weight, had headaches, and had a blinding pain in his jaw. He had been diagnosed with inflamed sinuses, but once his teeth began to fall out and his jaw began to crumble, Byers knew something was terribly wrong. Byers’s X-ray was sent to a radiologist, who confirmed that Byers’s fate was inevitable – he had the same lesions on his jaw as the Radium Girls. Sadly, Byers was so indoctrinated to rely on Radithor that he kept drinking it, hoping it would help him feel better when he began feeling sick.

An attorney dispatched to Byers’s house shortly before his passing remembered the state Byers was in due to his radiation poisoning:

We went to Southampton where Byers had a magnificent home. There we discovered him in a condition which beggars description. Young in years and mentally alert, he could hardly speak. His head was swathed in bandages. He had undergone two successful jaw operations and his whole upper jaw, excepting two front teeth, and most of his lower jaw had been removed. All the remaining bone tissue of his body was slowly disintegrating, and holes were actually forming in his skull.

Byers Had Enough Radium In His Body To “Kill Three Men”

Photo: Rana/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0 fr

After Byers’s death, Popular Science Monthly wrote that Byers had the “largest amount of radium ever found in a human being – more than thirty micrograms, enough to kill three men.”

With symptoms such as blinding headaches, breaking bones, and a disintegrating jaw, Byers must have suffered immensely before he succumbed to radiation poisoning in 1932, five years after his first dose of Radithor.   

The Federal Trade Commission Accidentally Contributed To The Rise Of Radioactive Products

Photo: Mutter/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Back when radium was immensely popular in consumer products, the FDA had very little power to regulate it. Not falling under food or drugs, it was out of their jurisdiction.

There was one department, however, that had control over radium: the Federal Trade Commission. Their job was to stand against false advertising claims; this meant that the FTC worked very hard to make sure that all the products on the market actually contained radium. Their strict regulation ensured that all the products people were buying were genuinely radioactive.

Byers’s Demise Led To Stricter FDA Control

Photo: Andrew Huff/flickr/CC-BY-NC 2.0

As Byers fell ill, and it became clear Radithor was the culprit, the FTC opened an investigation. They sought to challenge Bailey’s claim that Radithor and other products like it were “harmless.” They wanted Byers to testify, but he was too sick. They dispatched an attorney to his home to take a statement, which is when the attorney found him literally rotting from the inside out. It didn’t take long after that for the FTC to shut down Bailey’s business. 

The results of the FTC’s investigation led to the FDA getting more power over investigating suspicious health claims. Eventually, the FDA gained control over the entire pharmaceutical industry. 

Bailey Succumbed To His Own Lies, But It Was Only Discovered After His Death

Photo: UpperKasegirl/Youtube

Until the end, Bailey denied Radithor had anything to do with Byers’s demise. He claimed he had drunk more Radithor than Byers himself, and he was living proof that his “healing tonic” was perfectly safe.

Yet when his body was exhumed 20 years after his death from bladder cancer, medical researchers discovered his remains were riddled with radiation. His corpse was described as “still hot” after being unearthed.  


Horrific 20th Century Quack Medical Devices That Contained Radium

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, discovered radium, a radioactive element, back in 1898. However, people didn’t realize how dangerous the element was, and they began to use radium in household items. This led to radium in makeup, as well as in medical devices that claimed to cure everything from impotence to arthritis. However, what these quack devices actually led to was a plethora of surprisingly poisonous things, such as toothpaste, hair tonic, and suppositories. 

When people began dying of mysterious diseases, such as the ones suffered by the Radium Girls, who painted luminous watch dials with Undark, a radium-based paint that they wound up ingesting via their paintbrushes, doctors finally realized that radium was dangerous.

The history of radium poisoning is full of odd devices designed to improve one’s health and outer appearance. These everyday poisons were sold through magazine and newspaper ads – and in regular pharmacies. Thankfully, by the beginning of World War II, they had been phased out and are now an odd anecdote from American history. 

Radium-Lined Cups Were Used To Make Radioactive Beverages

Photo: Andrew Kuchling/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

These days, people drink bottled or filtered water. Back in the early 20th century, those who could afford it drank radioactive water. One popular way of making this water, which supposedly could cure many different ailments, involved the use of a metal cup or container that was lined with radium. Any water poured into the vessel was exposed to the radioactive material and picked up its properties. The Revigator was one such device; its makers claimed that it contained radon. Of course, this only “worked” if the device actually contained radium – many of the “radioactive” medical marvels on the market were scams. 

People Submerged Themselves In Radium-Laced Water At Spas

Photo: Eternalsleeper/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Going to spas and spending some time submerged in radioactive water was supposed to be an invigorating experience. In actuality, the natural radiation in these mineral hot springs might have made the spa goers feel relaxed – that is, until a few decades later when they realized that the “hot” water did more harm than good. During the time period, however, even reputable medical journals touted the healing abilities of radium and similar materials, and some claimed radium hot springs were a literal fountain of youth that could help slow the aging process. Some radium-filled hot springs are still in business today, but they limit people’s exposure to any radioactive elements in the water. 

Laying In Radioactive Sand Was A Treatment For Arthritis

Photo: André Castaigne/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One of the main byproducts of radium manufacturing is a fine-grained sand that is, of course, highly radioactive. Back in the early 1900s, before people realized how harmful exposure to it was, they claimed that exposure to the sand could successfully treat arthritis pain. Many spas opened up rooms where people could sit and rest their feet on the sand in the hopes of being cured. The ironic thing is that, even though people knew of the dangers that radioactivity could pose, these “Uranium Sitting Houses” were in business up through the 1950s. 

Men Placed Wax Coated Radium Rods In Their Urethras As A Cure For Impotence

Photo: Мосрекламсправиздат/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Men have always struggled with impotence. Now, there are medications like Viagra; back in the early 1900s, there were “bougies.” These were radium-laced wax rods that men inserted directly into their urethras to treat impotence. This treatment is now cringe inducing not only because of the way it took place, but also because placing radioactive material close to reproductive organs is a very bad idea. 

Radium Toothpaste Claimed To Make Teeth White And Shiny

Photo: Metaweb/CC-BY

Radium wasn’t just used in medical devices – it made its way into everyday beauty and household products as well. One of these hygienic products was toothpaste. According to ads, a small amount of radium in the toothpaste promised to make users’ teeth very white and super shiny. Whether or not it worked is up for debate, but what is known is that radioactive exposure can actually make one’s teeth fall out and result in a jaw rotting from the inside out. 

Radithor Supposedly Cured Impotence And Other Health-Related Woes

Photo: Sam LaRussa/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Radithor was a radium- and thorium-laced water that was sold in small vials. A few drops of it a day could cure impotence and “restore vigor” – or, so it purported to be the case. The product was made by Bailey Radium Laboratories of East Orange, New Jersey, who actually encouraged users to disprove its claims of containing the radioactive substances. The product was removed from the market after one heavy user who reportedly went through around three vials a day of the stuff, playboy Eben Byers, died a horrific death when his jaw disintegrated. 

Radium Suppositories Restored People’s “Vigor”

Photo: Mausweisel/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Speaking of restoring “vigor,” how about a radium suppository? These small, radioactive pellets were sold in boxes and claimed to help men with their impotence issues. Made by several different companies, including the Vital-O-Gland Company and the General Remedies Company, there is no proof that the suppositories actually contained any radioactive material, or that they worked as they were supposed to. Thank goodness.

Glasses With Radioactive Lenses Corrected Vision Problems

Photo: Conrad von Soest/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Before there was laser eye surgery, there were Dengen’s Radio-Active Eye Applicators. This device looked like a pair of simple spectacles, only instead of lenses, it had opaque pods that contained radium and other radioactive materials. Not only could they cure your eye ailments, claiming to repair things like nearsightedness and farsightedness, but they also took care of headaches and eye strain. What’s even more disturbing is the fact the eye applicators came in three different strengths. 

Tho-Radia Cosmetics Claimed To Brighten Skin

Photo: Rama/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Tho-radia was a line of makeup and skin creams that contained radium. It was heavily marketed to women in the United States and France, who purchased the items in the hopes that the product’s claims – to rejuvenate and brighten skin – were true. To add a little extra cachet to the brand, its creator,  Dr. Alfred Curie (no relation to Marie and Pierre Curie) put his name on the ads. 

Radium Emanation Bath Salts Cured Insomnia

Photo: Myron Metzenbaum/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Radium bath salts, which worked like modern-day bath salts – as in you dissolve them in your bath water before soaking in them – were sold as a cure for insomnia, various nervous disorders, and even rheumatism. What made them even worse (from a modern perspective, of course) was the fact that dissolving the radioactive bath salts would send small particles of them into the air, where they were also breathed into the lungs. These products were made by several different manufacturers, including the Denver Radium Service on what is now a Superfund site. 

Endocrine Glands Were Regulated With The Radiendocrinator

Photo: Hotel Will Rogers/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The endocrine system regulates the body’s hormone production. The glands in the endocrine system include those in the neck – the thyroid – as well as the pituitary gland in the brain. However, the horrifying detail here involves the glands that men would treat with the Radiendocrinator – their testes. Treatment via the Radiendocrinator involved holding the device in place sometimes for hours at a time, with the handy (and included) strap that resembled an athletic supporter. Ironically, the creator of the device, William J.A. Bailey, died of radiation-induced bladder cancer in 1949. 

Gout And Neuralgia Were Taken Care Of With Radium Tablets

Photo: Wellcome Library, London/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Radium tablets are still a legitimate medical treatment for people suffering from various types of cancer. However, back in the late 19th century, these tablets were sold on pharmacy shelves and supposedly cured gout, neuralgia (stabbing nerve pain), and numerous other ailments. These radioactive tablets, sold under brand names like Arium and Radione, were taken daily by people who simply wanted to feel better or have “the strength of iron.” 

Radioactive Heating Pads Cured A Number Of Ailments

Photo: Noble M. Eberhardt/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A radioactive heating pad that was lined with radium claimed to cure everything from rheumatism to standard aches and pains. The instructions for this particular device include warming it up, keeping it dry, and then applying it to the area of the body that hurts. Users could supposedly leave it on for up to 12 hours a day, and they were even encouraged to roll it up around a painful body part, such as an ankle, and tie it into place. 

Uranium Blankets Helped With Arthritis P

Photo: Francis Mould/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

These days, uranium blankets are a part of nuclear reactors, and they aren’t even a little bit related to the therapeutic ones touted as cures for arthritis pain in the early 20th century. Those particular blankets looked like standard, quilted ones, only, within the fabric squares, were bits of uranium. These blankets were sold as cures up through the 1950s, even after the dangers of uranium exposure were well known. 

Radium Tonic Prevented Gray Hairs

Photo: Sinclair Tousey/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A product called Caradium was created in the early 1900s. It was a tonic that was applied to hair to prevent gray hairs from growing, thanks to the power of its active ingredient – radium. It also promised to make any current gray hairs revert back to their old color. Caradium was the invention of Frederick Godfrey, a man whose credentials included “hair specialist.” 

Vintage Shoe-Fitting X-Ray Machines Will Zap Your Feet

How do you tell if a shoe is a good fit? Take a short walk? Squeeze the front-end with your fingers to make sure there is space for your toes? What about a dangerous, 20-second blast of unshielded x-rays? If you were buying shoes in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, it’s likely that you regularly inserted a tootsie into one of these death-rays.

The wooden cabinets, possibly first built by a Clarence Karrer in Milwaukee in 1924, had the x-ray source in the base, and it would fire upwards through your foot and shoe. Due to a lack of any kind of shielding, it wouldn’t stop there: the radiation would shoot right up into your baby-maker, clearly a perilous occurrence.

The machine, called a “Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope” put out 50 kv from its x-ray tube, which – according to Wikipedia’s figures for today’s machines, isn’t too bad:

In medical radiography voltage from 20 kV in mammography up to 150 kV for chest radiography are used for diagnostic. Energy can go up to 250 kV for radiotherapy applications.

The problem was repeat exposure. While it was recommended that children not be subjected to more than 12 doses a year, there was no such luck for shoe-store employees. According to the article Shoe-fitting with x-ray in National Safety News 62 by H. Bavley (1950), store clerks would put their hands into the beam to squeeze shoes during fitting. Worse still was the fate of a poor shoe model, “who received such a serious radiation burn that her leg had to be amputated.”

Thank God there’s nothing this dangerous around today. Like, you know, full-body backscatter x-ray machines in airports.


The Craziest Ancient Rome Sex Scandals

Vote up the most insane stories from ancient Roman times—those that put Washington, D.C. and Hollywood to shame.

If the Ancient Romans knew how to do one thing well, it was party. When they weren’t busy inventing the aqueduct, concrete, or the basis for the modern calendar, they were discovering new and exciting ways to have a good time with each other. Sure, every emperor, senator, and nobleman under the sun promoted family values… but when that sun set, ancient Rome got into the kind of action that would make the writers of Game of Thrones blush.  

While the Romans probably weren’t the first in history to push the sexual envelope, they were among the first to keep detailed records. Regular talk of affairs, orgies, and contests spun around the rumor mill for centuries. Of course, the Romans weren’t above tabloid-level journalism. It’s no coincidence that the most extreme rumors were about the most hated emperors.

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Since most of these Roman rumors involved the emperors, that meant most of them ended in either bloody coups or executions. It’s good to be the king, but only as long as people let you stay in power. So, as crazy as you think modern Washington controversies may seem, some of the ancient Rome sex stories on this list may make you appreciate just how far politicians have come over the last two thousand years.

Nero Castrated A Man And Then Married Him

Photo: John William Waterhouse/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

For someone with the power and maniacal reputation of Emperor Nero, it was probably easy to get bored at having his every whim met. Perhaps that’s why Nero turned an innocent boy into a eunuch and then tied the knot. The boy, Sporus, was dressed as a woman in a veil for the official ceremony, and the pair even took a romantic honeymoon to Greece.

Caligula Went To A Wedding And Left With The Bride

Photo: Louis le Grand/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Gaius Piso made the poor decision of inviting Emperor Caligula to his wedding. When Caligula showed up to the banquet, Gaius told the emperor not to touch his soon-to-be wife Livia Orestilla. So, naturally, Caligula stole her, married her, then banished her to an island where she was forbidden to sleep with anyone ever again. Moral of the story? Don’t tell Caligula he can’t do something.

Nero Got Nasty With His Mom

Photo:  Landesmuseum Württemberg/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

For Emperor Nero’s mother, Agrippina, merely being the mother of the emperor wasn’t enough. Early in his rule as a teenager, Agrippina had a heavy hand in his decision-making. Rumors spread that she reinforced her influence with her body. Stories spread about Nero’s relationship with a consort who suspiciously resembled his mother as well as a public appearance together where his robes were noticeably stained.

Tiberius Went Skinny Dipping with Young Boys

Photo: shakko/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Pushing the depths of depravity, stories said Emperor Tiberius trained young boys to fulfill his physical needs. He liked to go swimming with them, then have them lick and nibble him “between his thighs.” He called them “tiddlers.”

Caligula Slept With Guests’ Wives And Then Bragged About How They’d Gotten Down

Photo: Eustache Le Sueur/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Dinner parties with Caligula were a nightmare for married couples. Caligula frequently invited married couples over for dinner, and if a certain wife struck his fancy, he’d take her back to his bed chambers and return later to tell their husbands everything that went down. If that wasn’t enough for him, he’d sometimes file a bill of divorce for couples just because he could.

Caligula Had A Favorite Sister

Photo: Marsyas/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5

Although it’s been said he took all of his sisters to bed, Caligula’s favorite was allegedly Drusilla. Stories said their grandmother caught them in bed together when they were still minors. Later in life, he took Drusilla from her husband. When she died, Caligula declared an entire season of public mourning.

An Empress Had A Taboo Face-Off With A Famous Prostitute—And Won

Photo: Ricardo André Frantz/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

According to Pliny the Elder, Valeria Messalina, the third wife of Emperor Claudius and mother of his son, was known for her appetite for pleasure. Just for fun, the empress bet the best Roman courtesan of her time that she could sleep with more men in one day than said lady of the night. Messalina came out on top by bedding 25 men.

Nero Dressed Up As Animals For His Sexcapades

Nero may have had a weird childhood, but not even the most uncommon upbringing could explain his most ferocious urges. Stories said he liked to play a game where he dressed in animal skins, was let loose from a cage, and went to town on defenseless men and women who were tied to stakes.

Cleopatra Had A Love Child With Caesar And Paraded It Around Rome

Julius Caesar not only started the reign of Roman emperors; he was one of their finest playboys. Despite his marriage to Calpurnia, he took many mistresses—among them, the famous Cleopatra. When Caesar invited her to Rome, Cleopatra brought their baby and showed him off to everyone… including Calpurnia.

So what was an epic playboy to do? He gave the kid his name and drafted up a law saying he could marry as many women as he wanted.

Caligula Used His Sisters To Discredit Political Rivals

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

When Caligula wasn’t actually taking his siblings to bed, he often prostituted them off to his friends. This came in handy if he ever wanted to put those same friends on trial. He kept records of all the adultery and made them public to create an instant uproar whenever he needed to ruin a friend-turned-rival’s reputation.

Augustus Exiled His Daughter For Ruining Family Values

Photo: Santo Attilio/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Emperor Augustus found himself in a bind with his daughter, Julia. Augustus was a supporter of family values and set out to make adultery illegal. Julia complicated his political stance by frequently indulging in vices, including public instances of adultery. Augustus was so upset that he exiled her to an island with no men or wine. As for the men she slept with, they were either exiled themselves or forced to kill themselves.

Emperor Elagabalus Was All About Role-Playing

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Elagabalus would search for the most well-endowed men in all of Rome and bring them back to his palace. There, he’d pose for them as the goddess of love, Venus. He’d pretend his partner was Paris from the Illiad and let the fantasy go from there.

Caligula Turned His Palace Into A Brothel

Photo: Ed Uthman/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

When the Roman treasury was running low on money and taxes just weren’t doing the trick, Caligula turned his palace into a brothel. He put everyone on a line of credit with astronomical interest rates. Once, he allegedly saw two “Roman knights” who owed him passing by, so he had them seized and confiscated all their property.

Elagabalus Was a Part Time Emperor, Part Time Seducer

Photo: Lawrence Alma-Tadema/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

While Caligula turned his palace into a brothel, Elagabalus got in on the action himself. He had a room in his palace brothel where he’d stand at the door and try to entice clients into joining him.

Mark Antony Totally Went After Best Friend Caesar’s Girl After He Was Out Of The Way

Photo: Lawrence Alma-Tadema/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Not long after Caesar met his end on the Ides of March, his closest friend and ally, Mark Antony, hooked up with his mistress, Cleopatra. Antony was named an enemy of Rome, but was too busy with the Queen of Egypt to care. Eventually, Caesar’s successor, Octavian, faced them down and defeated their forces. In the end they both took their own lives.

Claudius Executed His Wife For Organizing A Coup With Her Lover

Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5

Other than challenging prostitutes to feats of bedroom mastery, Emperor Claudius’s wife Valeria Messalina was famous for marrying another man, Gaius Silius, behind Cladius’s back. Together, they conspired to overthrow Claudius and rule the Empire. That all fell apart when Claudius found out—and executed them both.


The Antonine Plague Claimed 5 Million Ancient Romans — And Scientists Still Don’t Know Its Origin

The Roman Empire was so crippled by the Antonine Plague that many scholars believe it hastened the empire’s demise.

At the height of the Antonine Plague, up to 3,000 ancient Romans dropped dead every single day

The disease was first cited during the reign of the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, in 165 or 166 A.D. Even though how the pandemic began remains unknown, one Greek physician named Galen managed to document the outbreak itself in startling detail.

Victims suffered for two weeks from fever, vomiting, thirstiness, coughing, and a swollen throat. Others experienced red and black papules on the skin, foul breath, and black diarrhea. Nearly ten percent of the empire perished this way.

Known as both the Antonine Plague and the Plague of Galen, the pandemic did eventually subside, seemingly as mysteriously as it had come.

The Antonine Plague rendered the empire of Ancient Rome a kind of Hell. Indeed, the most powerful empire of its time was utterly helpless in the face of this invisible killer.

The Antonine Plague Spreads Through Ancient Rome

An 1820 portrait of Galen, the Greek physician who documented the Antonine Plague.

Sources largely agree that the disease first appeared in the winter of 165 A.D. to 166 A.D. It was the height of the Roman Empire.

During a siege of the city of Seleucia in modern-day Iraq, Roman troops began to take note of a disease among the locals and then its own soldiers. They consequently carried that disease with them to Gaul and further legions stationed along the Rhine river, effectively spreading the plague across the empire.

Though modern epidemiologists haven’t identified where the plague originated, it is believed that the disease likely developed first in China and was then carried throughout Euroasia by the Roman troops.

There is one ancient legend that attempts to describe how the Antonine Plague first infected the Romans. The legend proposed that Lucius Verus — a Roman general and later the co-emperor to Marcus Aurelius — opened a tomb during the siege of Seleucia and unwittingly liberated the disease. It was thought that the Romans were being punished by the Gods for violating an oath they’d made not to pillage the city of Seleucia.

Meanwhile, the ancient doctor Galen had been away from Rome for two years, and when he returned in 168 A.D., the city was in ruin. His treatise, Methodus Medendi, described the pandemic as great, lengthy, and extraordinarily distressing.

Galen also observed victims suffer from fever, diarrhea, a sore throat, and pustular patches all over their skin. The plague had a mortality rate of 25 percent and survivors developed immunity to it. Others died within two weeks of first presenting symptoms.

Galen (top center) and a group of physicians in an image from the sixth-century Greek-Byzantine medical manuscript, Vienna Dioscurides.

“In those places where it was not ulcerated, the exanthem was rough and scabby and fell away like some husk and hence all became healthy,” M.L. and R.J. Littman wrote in The American Journal of Philology of the disease.

Modern epidemiologists have largely agreed based on this description that the disease was probably smallpox.

By the end of the outbreak in 180 A.D., close to a third of the empire in some areas, and a total of five million people, had died.

How The Plague Of Galen Wounded The Empire

Both Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (represented here in a bust from France’s Musée Saint-Raymond) and his co-emperor Lucius Verus may have died from the plague.

Of the millions that the plague claimed, one of the most famous was co-Emperor Lucius Verus, who ruled beside Emperor Antoninus in 169 A.D. Some modern epidemiologists also speculate that Emperor Marcus Aurelius himself perished from the disease in 180 A.D.

The Plague of Galen also heavily impacted Rome’s military, which then consisted of around 150,000 men. These legionaries caught the disease from their peers returning from the East and their resultant deaths caused a massive shortage in Rome’s military.

As a result, the emperor recruited anyone healthy enough to fight, but the pool was slim considering so many citizens were dying of the plague themselves. Freed slaves, gladiators, and criminals joined the military. This untrained army then later fell victim to Germanic tribes who were able to cross the Rhine river for the first time in over two centuries.

This Roman coin commemorated the victories of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus during the Marcomannic Wars, which lasted from 166 to 180 A.D. — the year he died.

With the economy in trouble and foreign aggressors taking hold, financially maintaining the empire became a serious issue — if not impossible.

The Aftermath Of The Antonine Plague

Unfortunately, the Antonine Plague was only the first of three pandemics to destroy the Roman Empire. Two more would follow, devastating the economy and army.

The Antonine Plague begat a shortage in the workforce and a stagnant economy. Floundering trade meant fewer taxes to support the state. The emperor, meanwhile, blamed Christians for the pandemic, as they supposedly failed to praise the Gods and subsequently enraged them enough to unleash the disease.

Christianity, however, actually garnered popularity during this crisis. Christians were among the few willing to take in those suffering from or left destitute by the plague. Christianity was thus able to emerge as the singular and official faith of the empire following the plague.

As people from high classes fell to lower ones, the nation experienced collective anxiety about their own stations. This was previously unimaginable to those entrenched in Roman exceptionalism.

Ironically, it was the empire’s expansive reach and efficient trade routes that facilitated the spread of the plague. Well-connected and overcrowded cities once hailed as the epitome of culture quickly became the epicenters for disease transmission. In the end, the Antonine Plague was only a predecessor of two more pandemics — and the demise of the biggest empire the world had ever seen.


9 Laughably Unscientific Historical Theories Attempting To Explain The Universe

For as long as humans have been able to communicate, they have been trying to figure out exactly what is going on “up there.” This has resulted in a lot of interesting, but pretty inaccurate and outmoded, theories about space throughout history. These outdated beliefs about space, which attempt to explain just how the Earth is interacting with the cosmos, are surprisingly varied, and some of the weirdest aren’t as old as you might think. In fact, some of them are still believed in remote parts of the world. We may have a much better idea of the makeup of the universe now, but some of these old-fashioned attempts at astronomy are cooler than the truth.

Space Is A Fiery, Cosmic Egg

Photo: Meister des Hildegardis-Codex/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Hildegard von Bingen was one of the most industrious people of the Middle Ages, period. She was a Benedictine abbess who is often credited as being the founder of natural history in Germany. She was also a writer, composer, philosopher, and receiver of religious visions. For all of her innovating, Pope Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Catholic Church in 2012. She proposed that the cosmos were arranged into a fiery cosmic egg. It sounds pretty scary, but Hildegard saw it is a reflection of God’s vision – the egg of the cosmos followed a divine patterning. The outermost layer of the egg is fire, representing purification and judgement; the next layer is ethereal firmament, which signifies faith; the next is water, the element for baptism; and finally, there’s the Earth itself, which is made up of four elements.

A Scarab Beetle Rolls The Earth In The Watery Sky

Photo: Mullica/flickr/CC-BY-NC 2.0

The Ancient Egyptians’ view of space had something in common with Hildegard von Bingen’s fiery, cosmic egg theory: the idea that the world is surrounded by a layer of water. This “eternal water” was the habitation of the goddess Nut, and, beneath the Earth, a parallel netherworld known as Duat, home to both the good and the cursed, existed. In addition to this set up, the Egyptians attached a special significance to the dung beetle. They saw the dung balls from which young beetles emerged as representative of the always shifting and spherical sun and felt that the seemingly spontaneous birth of these scarabs was like that of the first God, Atum. But the importance of the dung beetle went beyond allegory; they also believed that Earth itself was being rolled by a giant, invisible dung beetle, which explained the changes in the sky at night. At least they got the rotation part right.

The Square Inside A Circle Concept of ‘Canopy Heaven’

Photo: By Jean-Michel Moullec [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
There were many conflicting theories about the cosmos in Ancient China. One popular theory was known as “gaitian,” or “Canopy Heaven.” Named after the round-roofed style of chariots at the time, those who aligned themselves with this proposed theory believed that the Earth was a cube, surrounded by the spherical heavens. It is believed that this theory inspired the common Chinese iconography of a square within a circle.

The Dome That Separates The Waters Of Earth From The Waters Of Heaven

Photo: George L. Robinson/Wikimedia Commons/CC0

There are many references to the structure of the cosmos in the Old Testament. The Hebrews imagined the universe as a dome structure, with a metal firmament separating the waters of Heaven from the Earthly sphere. In this conception, Earth itself rests on primeval waters, held up by pillars. The idea of the cosmos as water was one that could be found all over the ancient world at the time.

The Constellations That Produce Earthly Effects

Photo: agavegirl13/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

Some cosmic patterns are regional, and specific cultures and places have unique ways of understanding those patterns. Many Native societies, for example, see direct linkages between cosmic patterns and natural phenomena on Earth. For their part, the Barasana people of the Amazon have named a group of stars the “Caterpillar Jaguar.” As this constellation rises in the sky, they believe that the number of caterpillars on Earth rises to meet this father caterpillar. In reality, this is a coincidence, due to the rotation of the Earth and the seasonal needs and development patterns of caterpillars.

Earth Is An Island In The Watery Universe

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Way back in the 8th century BCE, the pervading belief among the archaic Greeks was that the Earth was a domed island surrounded by a primordial river called “Ocean.” In this mode of thought, Ocean was like a vast outer rim that formed a shield-like structure for the Earth. The waters beyond the Ocean that they could see were, to the archaic Greeks, essentially infinite, and they feared this unknown, limitless expanse.

The Cosmos Is Surrounded By A Vast Void

Photo: WikiImages/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

Ancient Greek philosophers and astronomers had many incredibly complex theories about space. Most of them dealt with the question of whether or not the universe was finite. If the universe ended, that meant that there was nothingness outside of it, a complete void. This concept of an Earth and Heavens surrounded by a void was quite popular. The Stoic philosophers, however, believed that the universe was one pulsing, cyclical being, and therefore could not have voids within it, just as humans cannot have voids within them. They believed that there was a kind of “breath” or tension holding the cosmos together, and an empty void would tear it apart.

A Luminiferous Aether Fills The Cosmic Void

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

In the late 19th century, the concept of a “Luminiferous Aether” became quite popular. At the time, scientists were unable to explain how light waves could travel through voids because of the understanding of waves at the time. Newton, in particular, found it inconceivable that bodies in space could move and act upon one another without any physical substance connecting them; that would’ve run in the face of scientific explanations for action, reaction, and moving bodies. Thus, scientists postulated that the universe was filled with some kind of invisible substance through which light, electricity, and magnetism traveled, and this infinite material channeled but did not interact with the physical universe. They called this substance “Luminiferous Aether.” This theory became less and less prevalent as scientific understanding of light waves improved and people got tired of trying to prove something that they could not see.

The Milky Way River Separates Heaven And Earth

Photo: skeeze/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

Some cultures see the stars as Earth-like natural structures, separating the two worlds of Heaven and Earth. The Misminay people of the Andes see the Milky Way as an actual river in the sky, feeding water between the Heavenly and Earthly spheres. Because of their location, the Milky Way crosses over the village twice in one day, quartering it, which further indicates the divine utility of the structure.


Gay History: Queer, Black & Blue: Sister Rosetta Tharpe Is Muva Of Them All

Artwork by Kendrick Daye

Rock-n-Roll was invented by a queer Black woman born in 1915 Arkansas. Your disordered hardcore punk rock was sanctioned by a kinky-haired Black girl born to two cotton pickers in the Jim Crow South. The electric guitar was first played in ways very few people could have ever imagined by a woman who wasn’t even allowed to play at music venues around the country.

The Patron Saint of rock music is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The original punk rebel from which we were all born, SRT is muva.

Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas to parents Katie Bell Nubin and Willis Atkins. Two regular folks both passionate about music. Growing up in the Church of God in Christ (her mother was a preacher), religious worship through musical expression, Tharpe musicality was fostered in an encouraging environment from the jump. Described as a music prodigy, four-year-old Nubin began singing and playing her beloved guitar in the church. Even in that way, Tharpe is representative of an American musical history born in the Black church.

By six, Tharpe was a featured performer in a traveling evangelical troupe where she accompanied her mother to gospel concerts all across the country, playing with people like Duke Ellington, before eventually settling in Chicago. Traveling influenced her a lot, and her music was flavored both by urban contemporary and the sounds of rural, backwoods towns. By 19, she had met and married Thomas Thorpe, a preacher, too. But that didn’t last long. And by 1948, ol’ girl had left her husband—taking his last name with her, which she adopted as a stage name. Thanks for that, Thomas.

1938 would turn out to be a banner year for Tharpe. During this time she recorded her first pieces of music, with the backing of Lucky Millinder’s jazz orchestra, This would mark the first time a gospel act would lay down tracks for Decca Records, a British lael that boasted other icons like Bing Crosby. But Tharpe was still just an icon in the making. Somewhat of a legend all on her own. During this time she came out with her first hit, “Rock Me” by Thomas Dorsey. And that shit is kinda emo! And powerful. Not only a talented guitarist, but Tharpe’s soaring vocals on the track also knock the wind out of you to this day.

Performing as both a solo artist and occasionally in collaborations with groups like the all-white group, the Jordanaires and Cab Calloway, Tharpe brought her show to places like the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall. Shocking and then captivating audiences, most people at that time had never even seen a Black woman play an electric guitar before. Let alone one who could command one to make such noises. Both controversial and respected for her undeniability, SRT brought gospel music to mainstream popularity every night she performed. Blending the sounds of her childhood with jazz, blues, and the genre she was inventing all her own. Even when this ostracized her from the gospel community.

In 1944, another seminal year in Tharpe’s career, she released “Strange Things Happening Every Day”. A song that went on to become the first gospel to chart on Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (now R&B chart). It is considered by some to be the first rock song, ever. Fast-forward two years and Tharpe is witnessing Marie Knight and Mahalia Jackson live in concert in New York City. Utterly spellbound by Marie Knight, Tharpe tracked her down and the two set out to perform together. While Knight sang and played piano, SRT did both, plus guitar. The two became lovers and creative partners through the rest of the decade. During this time they recorded “Up Above My Head”.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe continued to tour and make new music throughout the fifties and into the sixties. In 1964 she performed the now infamous show at an abandoned railroad station where it was broadcast nationwide in England. Dressed in that luxurious fur coat and driven by a horse-drawn carriage, Tharpe was rock-and-roll royalty whether people knew it then or not. Regardless of how historic and inspirational this show was, the sixties were when her popularity began to fade. Blues began to surge and she toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan alongside Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. But with the rise of male and white rock singers and musicians who appealed more to mainstream culture–as well as Tharpe’s devotion to recording religious material—she was pushed to the fringes of the musical movements she helped inspire.

And inspired many she did. Everyone from Chuck Berry to Elvis was influenced by Tharpe’s musicality. During his induction speech at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, the Man in Black, Johnny Cash shouted her out as his favorite singer. A fact daughter-in-law Rosanne would later back up. Everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Aretha Franklin credit her musicianship as an important influence on them. “She influenced Elvis Presley, she influenced Johnny Cash, she influenced Little Richard,” says Tharpe’s biographer Gayle Wald. “She influenced innumerable other people who we recognize as foundational figures in rock and roll.”

“When people would ask her about her music,” Wald says, “she would say, ‘Oh, these kids and rock and roll — this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.’”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe died from a stroke in Philadelphia in 1973. She had been living there with her mother in a modest home after her leg was amputated as the result of diabetes-related complications. Marie Knight was there to do the makeup and hair for her burial. Tharpe was buried in an unmarked Philly grave that has since been annotated.


Buddhism 101: The Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism

School of the Dalai Lama

Gelug monks wear the yellow hats of their order during a formal ceremony. Jeff Hutchens / Getty Images

Gelugpa is best known in the West as the school of Tibetan Buddhism associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In the 17th century, the Gelug (also spelled Geluk) school became the most powerful institution in Tibet, and it remained so until China took control of Tibet in the 1950s.

The story of Gelugpa begins with Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), a man from Amdo Province who began studying with a local Sakya lama at a very young age. At 16 he traveled to central Tibet, where the most renowned teachers and monasteries were located, to further his education.

Tsongkhapa did not study in any one place. He stayed in Kagyu monasteries learning Tibetan medicine, the practices of Mahamudra and the tantra yoga of Atisha. He studied philosophy in Sakya monasteries. He sought independent teachers with fresh ideas. He was particularly interested in the Madhyamika teachings of Nagarjuna.

In time, Tsongkhapa combined these teachings into a new approach to Buddhism. He explained his approach in two major works, Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path and Great Exposition of the Secret Mantra. Other of his teachings were collected in several volumes, 18 in all.

Through most of his adult life, Tsongkhapa traveled around Tibet, often living in camps with dozens of students. By the time Tsongkhapa had reached his 50s, the rugged lifestyle had taken a toll on his health. His admirers built him a new monastery on a mountain near Lhasa. The monastery was named “Ganden,” which means “joyful.” Tsongkhapa lived there only briefly before he died, however.

The Founding of Gelugpa

At the time of his death, Tsongkhapa and his students were considered to be part of the Sakya school. Then his disciples stepped up and built a new school of Tibetan Buddhism on Tsongkhapa’s teachings. They called the school “Gelug,” which means “the virtuous tradition.” Here are some of Tsongkhapa’s most prominent disciples:

Gyaltsab (1364-1431) is thought to have been first the abbot of Gendun after Tsongkhapa died. This made him the first Ganden Tripa, or throne-holder of Gendun. To this day the Ganden Tripa is the actual, official head of the Gelug school, not the Dalai Lama.

Jamchen Chojey (1355-1435) founded the great Sera monastery of Lhasa.

Khedrub (1385-1438) is credited with defending and promoting Tsongkhapa’s teachings throughout Tibet. He also began the tradition of high lamas of Gelug wearing yellow hats, to distinguish them from Sakya lamas, who wore red hats.

Gendun Drupa (1391-1474) founded the great monasteries of Drepung and Tashillhunpo, and during his life, he was among the most respected scholars in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama

A few years after Gendun Drupa died, a young boy of central Tibet was recognized as his tulku, or rebirth. Eventually, this boy, Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542) would serve as abbot of Drepung, Tashillhunpo, and Sera.

Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588) was recognized as the rebirth of Gendun Gyatso. This tulku became the spiritual adviser to a Mongol leader named Altan Khan. Altan Khan gave Gendun Gyatso the title “Dalai Lama,” meaning “ocean of wisdom.” Sonam Gyatso is considered to be the third Dalai Lama; his predecessors Gendun Drupa and Gendun Gyatso were named first and second Dalai Lama, posthumously.

These first Dalai Lamas had no political authority. It was Lobsang Gyatso, the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama (1617-1682), who forged a fortuitous alliance with another Mongol leader, Gushi Khan, who conquered Tibet. Gushi Khan made Lobsang Gyatso the political and spiritual leader of the entire Tibetan people.

Under the Great Fifth a large part of another school of Tibetan Buddhism, Jonang, was absorbed into Gelugpa. The Jonang influence added Kalachakra teachings to Gelugpa. The Great Fifth also initiated the building of Potala Palace in Lhasa, which became the seat of both spiritual and political authority in Tibet.

Today many people think the Dalai Lamas held absolute power in Tibet as “god-kings,” but that is inaccurate. The Dalai Lamas who came after the Great Fifth was, for one reason or another, mostly figureheads who held little real power. For long stretches of time, various regents and military leaders were actually in charge.

Not until the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933), would another Dalai Lama function as a real head of government, and even he had limited authority to enact all the reforms he wished to bring to Tibet.

The current Dalai Lama is the 14th, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso (born 1935). He was still an adolescent when China invaded Tibet in 1950. His Holiness has been exiled from Tibet since 1959. Recently he relinquished all political power over the Tibetan people in exile, in favor of a democratic, elected government.

The Panchen Lama

The second highest lama in Gelugpa is the Panchen Lama. The title Panchen Lama, meaning “great scholar,” was bestowed by the Fifth Dalai Lama on a tulku who was fourth in a lineage of rebirths, and so he became the 4th Panchen Lama.

The current Panchen Lama is the 11th. However, His Holiness Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (born 1989) and his family were taken into Chinese custody shortly after his recognition was made public in 1995. The Panchen Lama and his family have not been seen since. A pretender appointed by Beijing, Gyaltsen Norbu, has served as Panchen Lama in his place.

Gelugpa Today

The original Ganden monastery, Gelugpa’s spiritual home, was destroyed by Chinese troops during the 1959 Lhasa uprising. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard came to finish whatever was left. Even the mummified body of Tsongkhapa was ordered burned, although a monk was able to recover a skull and some ashes. The Chinese government is rebuilding the monastery.

Meanwhile, exiled lamas re-established Ganden in Karnataka, India, and this monastery is now Gelugpa’s spiritual home. The current Ganden Tripa, the 102nd, is Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu. (Ganden Tripas are not tulkus but are appointed to the position as adults.) The training of new generations of Gelugpa monks and nuns continues.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has lived in Dharamsala, India since he left Tibet in 1959. He has dedicated his life to teaching and to gain greater autonomy for Tibetans still under Chinese rule.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “The Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-gelug-school-of-tibetan-buddhism-449627.